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?