Our Bumpers, Our Selves

June 20, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

A while back, I invoked Goffman to explain road rage (that post is here). In our nondriving lives, we say, “Sorry” and “Excuse me,” when we inadvertently bump someone or get in their way. Without that little apology, the act itself would imply a “dissing” of the other person, a diminishing of the social worth of that person. “Sorry” repairs the accidental affront the other person’s self. The highway removes the possibility of this “interaction ritual” (or ritual interaction). The other driver is left with only the fact of the offense.

Of course, not all drivers react identically. Some are more patient, others are quick to take offense at peceived disrespect. But how can you tell which is which?

Bumper stickers, window decals, and vanity plates, it turns out, are a good clue. William Zlemko, a grad student at Colorado State, found that the more of these a car sported, the more likely the driver was to respond to with anger (honking, tailgating) when he felt wronged by another car. And it didn’t matter whether the bumper stickers were about prying guns from cold, dead hands or visualizing world peace.

Szlemko frames the issue as territoriality. He refers to the vanity plates and bumper stickers as “territory markers.” I’d put it in terms of self. For some drivers, a car is a means of transportation. But for those who deck out their cars with these personalized items, the car is an extension of the self.

(The article is online at the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, Vol. 38 Issue 6 Page 1664 June 2008. Gated.)


maxliving said...

Bumper stickers are also entry #100 on stuff white people like.

Anonymous said...

As a fledgling self and identity scholar who decks her car out in bumper stickers, I like your interpretation better. It makes more sense to me.

Once again, however, I seem to be a statistical anomaly. I'm pretty passive on the road.

I wonder if there are some people who are more likely to consider their possessions an extension of the self? Perhaps being territorial about your possessions is a symptom?