Hate Traffic? The Flow And Your Brain

There are studies about who we are – our personality changes – when we drive automobiles, trucks, and ride motorcycles on the roadways.  People look into the psychology of aspects such as the social activity traits of driving, and how our minds can react to the situations of driving in different ways.  

We may notice differences in our personalities when we are in motion.  And, where we are from may impact our driving theories, strategies, and driver assessments (how we think about other drivers).  If you learned to drive in New York City or Paris, you will have to have different driving tactics than if you learned to drive in a small town in Mexico or Montana.

But we all hate traffic

With our powerful human ability to adapt to different situations, why do almost all of us around the world hate traffic?  We can get used to sub-freezing living conditions (Alaska, Siberia, and other places),  tragic personal loss & tragedies, and light beer.  But traffic?  Nope.

Driving in slow, thick traffic seems to create a different type of experience in our minds.  And this is based in the biology of our brains.

Traffic is the “anti-flow” state of consciousness

The psychological state of flow, proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, is “an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity” (Wikipedia).  The physical flowing of traffic requires a similar energized focus, almost-full involvement, and successful handling of the process.

But the difference is the “feeling” part.  Traffic probably drains our energized focus, and the full involvement is reactive, not pro-active.  As to “successful handling”, even if you get in the best lane, making faster progress than any other car, you still cannot feel you were successful.  Because… you could have gone at a different time when there wasn’t any traffic.

Traffic stops our ability to have “flow” 

Having negative random interruptions that require your attention to resolve cannot create “flow”.  They seem to fail on one of the traits of flow: that the “activity is intrinsically rewarding”.  But more on how we try to resolve this failing will be found farther below.

While we may enjoy and even get addicted to the interruptions from our email, phone, and mobile apps, we don’t like the stop-and-go interruptions on the road.  Driving requires a variable amount of attention and focus, and this amount changes from moment to moment.

Unlike the unwanted interruption of a television ad, the interruptions on the road are similar to a fly landing on your face.  These distractions must be:

  • assessed
  • responded to
  • balanced against other interruptions (i.e. there is water on the road, and someone is crossing the street, and someone is honking at the car next to you)
How we respond may provide some relief, though.

What about our brains love of random rewards?

Studies have shown that our brains reward pleasurable unexpected activity.  If someone surprises you and brings you flowers or chocolate, your brain will release dopamine.  You may get a similar dopamine effect from these types of traffic situations:

  1. Someone moves out of your lane in front of you, so you get more room and can go a little faster
  2. Traffic is heavy, but then suddenly starts to go faster, and soon you realize the traffic is gone

Hmm… we are on to something.  In #1 above, you get a random positive surprise, and you feel better.  Hey, if you can change lanes, pass someone, and get back into the same lane, you get the same result.

But does anyone try this?  All the time!  When frustrated by traffic, drivers’ attempts for a little extra progress is never a sure thing.  Perhaps the traffic weaving, passing, and other tactics give the negative traffic experience a potential for random pleasurable outcomes, a type of brain stimulation reward.  Those can have addictive tendencies, which would make using randomly-effective traffic strategies an activity which is more pleasurable than just driving with the traffic flow.  Hopefully not combined with any retribution, since revenge doesn’t provide the satisfaction you really want.

And since all traffic eventually ends when you finish your trip, isn’t this completion a reward?  Yes, but it is not an unexpected reward.  So, no dopamine, no extra pleasure, and no state of mental flow.

Of course, there are ways to lower the negative feelings about wasting time in traffic.  Listening to music or spoken audio can provide something for our brains to get pleasure from.  Having a nice conversation – in person or on a phone – can activate the social pleasures of our minds.  Opening the windows, sunroof, or convertible top can let the wind bring the outdoors into the equation.

And, using the experience to improve our planning for future travel is also a constructive approach to the situation.  Happy travels!

About Paul Worsham