Driving ourselves crazy: Managing summer traffic through social dilemma research

It’s the season of the summer vacation! Beaches beckon, elevations entice, cabins call. Unfortunately, a common annoyance tends to block our bliss: summer traffic. “Everyone had the same idea!” we muse, as we endlessly and aimlessly burn fossils.

I can offer no cure for traffic. If I could, I’d be rich! But I can offer some advice to make this annoyance—both the outright jam and the long progression of cars—a bit more negotiable. And it starts by treating traffic as a social dilemma.

A social dilemma, in short, is an ultra-common and extensively-researched situation in which many people are trying to share a common resource (e.g., a road). Here’s the kicker: on an individual level, it makes sense for everyone to claim as much of that resource as they can for themselves—to be as competitive as they can. But if everyone does that, well then the resource disappears quickly.

Let’s get specific. When you see summer traffic, what’s really happening? Everyone’s trying to share a common resource—like an annoyingly insufficient number of lanes across the Bay Bridge (don’t get me started). And while it might make sense for everyone to claim as much of the road as possible—e.g., by cutting everyone else off—if everyone does that, you get mayhem. You get a much worse jam, if not a few serious accidents. In short, if everyone acts competitively instead of cooperatively, everyone suffers.

So how do you solve a social dilemma? Since a solution requires everyone to override self-interested yet fully rational behavior, it’s not particularly easy. Luckily, social dilemmas are solvable, and research presents a plethora of potential solutions. And here are a smattering of ideas that seem relevant to the summer gridlock:

  1. Try to communicate: One reason social dilemmas don’t get solved is that the involved parties don’t or can’t communicate their intention to act cooperatively. Barring any method of establishing cooperative relations, they revert to competitive self-interest. Communicating in traffic is far from easy, and a common form of communication (with one finger) is not particularly cooperative. But most of us could probably be a bit more explicit with our turn signals and hand signals (especially if we live in Maryland). Indeed, if you take the lead and communicate as explicitly as possible—to the point of overdoing it—I’m willing to bet that you’ll find the others in the same gridlock following suit. If nothing else, it’s a fun experiment to try while warming the globe.
  2. Show leadership: Research on social dilemmas consistently documents the ability of leaders to solve social dilemmas by coordinating the behavior of group members. In traffic, the obvious problem that there is no leader. And the person who thinks he’s the leader—that guy in the Escalade with the tinted windows and stereo system audible on the Eastern Shore—is the crux of the problem. But you can be a leader too. You can take the opportunity to let a few people in, more people than you otherwise would’ve. And yes, the Escalade guy might drive all over you. But let him: You don’t want to hear Beyonce that loud anyway. And you’re likely to generate a cycle of positive reciprocity in which other drivers, sensing your generosity, perceive a norm of magnanimity and feel guilty about their own self-interested aggressiveness. In other words, I think you’ll sense others increasingly letting others in, moving everyone through those two silly lanes faster.
  3. Establish a relationship: The most difficult social dilemmas are one-shot games: situations when you’re interacting with someone once and never again—because there’s no possibility of your current cooperation ever getting repaid. On the surface, traffic seems like a one-shot game if ever there was one. But I think most of us have had the experience of following and/or being followed by someone for the bulk of a long journey. Maybe we both set our cruise controls identically; maybe we stopped at the same gas stations repeatedly (hopefully they’re not tailing us out of creepiness or road rage). In these situations, we have the opportunity to establish a cooperative relationship. And when we have that opportunity, we should take it—in particular, by thinking very carefully about our behaviors at the very beginning. If we establish an early rapport—with either driver letting the other amicably pass on occasion—the journey is likely to prove pleasant. If we establish a show of testosterone—with both drivers speeding up anytime the other one hopes to pass—well, then the journey is sure to raise everyone’s hackles.

I don’t claim that any of this is rocket science. But I do hope that these three simple principles, inspired by research on social dilemmas, can help to make your summer drive more negotiable. And your vacation more enjoyable.

Have you seen or used any of these tactics recently?


6 thoughts on “Driving ourselves crazy: Managing summer traffic through social dilemma research

  1. One author advised avoiding rush hours. If you are your boss, possibly you can go to office either earlier or late than everybody else. The commute to and from the office will no more be a problem. Dinning our, try a weekday and you will love the service.


  2. Pingback: Summer travel synopsis | Brian Gunia

  3. I found this post particularly interesting as I recently moved to Hawaii, a state known for its terrible traffic. However, people here are polite to the point of almost absurdity in letting people in front of them in merge lanes and such. It stems from the community mentality here where “we are all in this together” and since we live on a small island, everyone knows everyone else in a “6 degrees of separation” way.


    • Thanks for the comment, Elizabeth. The real key is coordination, so if most people follow the same driving norms in Hawaii, that probably makes things a bit more efficient. Of course, the benefits of any such patterns are limited by the availability of roads and amount traffic trying to use them.


  4. I chuckled at the idea of a “show leadership” approach in Nigeria. It is generally a weak solution as Nigeria considered on the survival/traditional scale of the World Value System pictogram, the person letting people in will remainin his/her spot unitl their survival instinct kicks in. True story, my dad told me about a former collegue who is European. He was stuck in traffic on an Ibadan road in Nigeria. For context, there are basically no rules applied or followed in a typical Nigerian traffic. Thus, the European man decided to show leadership and allow other drivers to go in front of him. What ended up happening was other drivers saw an opportunity and took advantage of it. The Eurpoean man was in the car with his wife and after way too many drivers cutting in front of them, she told him he better stop this and fight for their movement in the traffic. So, culture does add dynamics to this suggestion.


  5. Thank you for your comment. Culture is an important influence on many aspects of human behavior, and negotiation behavior is no exception. While the advice in this piece is broadly expected to hold in the US and other prototypically Western cultures, I have no doubt that it varies in other cultures. Thanks for helping us to understand the nuances as they may apply to Nigeria.


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