Lessons in Narcissism
Learning about Narcissistic Behavior from the Roadways
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | August 17, 2021 (edited February 23, 2022)
Narcissistic behaviors crowd our roadways, bullies threaten and aggressively endanger. While the narcissistic driver annoys, they also teach fascinating lessons about narcissism.
The roadways are full of impatient, uncourteous drivers with their anger to explode at the slightest perceived wrong. They irritate me. Their arrogant, narcissistic aggression against unsuspecting victims sours moods, taints the moment, and invades the mind with toxic ruminations. The roadway is a social experience, full of micro social interactions. The narcissistic driver is more than an irritation; they are a professor of social psychology, teaching intriguing lessons about narcissistic behaviors.
Narcissistic Behaviors vs. Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Short interactions on the freeway are woefully insufficient to diagnose an illness. We may witness a narcissistic behavior from an otherwise healthy individual. We all act irrational at times. In a recent article, I wrote about the complexity of personality. We act different in different situations. Driving, unfortunately, brings out the worst in many of us. We become narcissistic demons, safely separated from the targets of our social aggressions.
Narcissism is excessive focus on the self that causes a person to ignore the perspective and needs of others.
The Narcissistic Encounter
Typically, I refrain from retelling the small annoyances I encounter. I find using an article to dress down an anonymous person distasteful. However, I'm going to violate my rule. Reframing a roadway experience, utilizing my psychology background to expand our understanding of narcissistic behaviors that we may encounter in life.
I live in a populated California city. Large multi-lane freeways inch along at ridiculously slow speeds during peak hours. To control freeway traffic during commute time, many freeway on-ramps are controlled with a metering light. Every fifteen seconds or so the light turns green and a waiting driver proceeds forward down the entry ramp for the freeway. These entry ramps are long enough to pick up sufficient speed to allow for a smooth merge with the regular flow of freeway traffic.
Merge lanes create a perpetual flow of social interaction between the drivers of merging cars and the drivers of cars in the far right lane of the freeway. Entering drivers should increase or slow their speed to slip in between vehicles, while cars on the freeway should leave sufficient space for entering cars to enter. The interaction is not completely dependent on either driver, but a healthy social interaction that doesn't create a need for extreme evasive actions to avoid a collision. Here is where my personal story of driving irritation begins.
Yesterday, I had a morning appointment on the other side of town, requiring a short drive on the freeway. My light turned green, I quickly accelerated to freeway traffic speed and merged into the 'slow' lane. I could see a car barreling through traffic behind me approaching at a rapid pace. By the time this speedster caught up to me, I was travelling at about 65 mph, not quite cruising speed but certainly about as fast as what most normal cars can attain before the end of the on-ramp. When a car is travelling 90 mph and shifting in and out of lanes, not much a merging car can do. The two speeds are incompatible for a smooth merge.
The speeding car's horn wailed as the driver made an unnecessary and dangerous maneuver across multiple lanes of traffic to get around me. The car then swerved back to slow lane and exited the freeway.
When another driver rudely blasts their horn or waves the condemning finger bird, their indictment of your action stings. We ruminate; we defend our position; we write a blog.
Research suggests a possible association between aggressive driving and narcissism. In a recent study authors explain a possible reason for the correlate, "as the outward display of hostility and aggression is socially undesirable, driving, because of its anonymity may provide an ideal setting for narcissist to display their perceived superior abilities, while also allowing them the opportunity to retaliate more freely (without serious consequence) against those they believe may slighted them" (Lustman, Wiesenthal, & Flett, 2010).
Taking a look at this frequent style of road encounter through a psychological perspective enlightens and, perhaps, sends warning signals to examine some of our own misbehaviors and faulty perceptions that interfere with peace of mind and wellness.
Road rage is a response to disrupted homeostasis. Our biological system is humming along within a window of wellness. Our predictions of short and long term futures are meshing with current circumstances. When an event or person contradicts the prediction, our system alarms, emotions surge, and change must be made. Adapting requires unplanned energy, placing new demands on our carefully budgeted energy disbursement plans.
These disruptions (large and small) are frustrating. We are equipped with biological and learned resources for tolerating frustrations. Some have large tolerance windows, others something much narrower. A slow moving car merging onto the freeway sends some into an emotional tizzy while others hardly even register the common occurrences worthy of noting.
Studies have found those prone to avert aggression often score high on inventory tests measuring affect intensity for anger and Frustration (AIAF) (Park, Ickes, & Robinson 2014).
Narcissistic Predictions; Selfish Expectations
The narcissistic prediction, being self-focused, often fails, leading to more frustration. For example, let's look at my merging encounter through the narcissistic prediction lens. The other driver was late, or perhaps always drives like a madman. The adrenaline aroused his system and he was driving fast. As he came within a half mile of his off-ramp, he saw the outside lane open. He moved to that lane and accelerated. His prediction was to use the open lane at a blistering pace all the way to his exit.
His prediction was busted because he failed to calculate the steady stream of cars entering and merging onto the freeway. Narcissists notoriously fail to calculate the presence of other autonomous human beings in their predictions. The prediction is framed around "what I want," and "what I think I can do."
In the frightening book the Narcissism Epidemic Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell write that the narcissist "lives in a state of restless, perpetually unsatisfied desire" (2009, location 174). When reality has no way of accommodating expectations, the person is habitually unsatisfied. When narcissistic expectations are built upon ignorance of competitive autonomous others, the end is disappointment.
A healthy prediction considers others. In this case, understanding that the outside lane is the only option for merging cars, and that the drivers have little options to accommodate for a speeding car several hundred meters behind them. You can't stop in the merge lane, allowing the speeder to pass, without creating a serious hazard. Understanding these nuances of the social interaction of merge lanes mitigates the self-focused desire of
"I want to drive in this lane at my own self-determined speed."
The narcissist has a "craving to be freed from the risks of responsibility, of freedom, of awareness; his longing for unconditional love, which is offered without any expectation of his loving response" (Fromm, 2010, 1302).
Theory of Mind
Children learn early in development that others have thoughts and motivations independent of the person observing them. Psychologists refer to this as theory of mind.
I suppose that narcissistic behaviors come from either failure to consider that others have autonomous thoughts, motivations, and circumstances or complete apathy towards others autonomy. The latter being more dangerous. Whether in ignorance or apathy, predictions fail or spitefully hurt.
Ignorance of Others
Ignorance of others is not hateful or purposely manipulating attitude. Ignorance of others is simply a glaring blind spot interfering with healthy cognitions. I recently encountered this on a pizza night with an acquaintance.
One pizza we decided on (Frank's Fiasco) was their pizza of choice, loaded with toppings, thick crust, and anchovies. I'm not a big pizza eater. I prefer a simple pizza, one or two toppings, and a salad on the side. After fifty-five years of eating pizza, I have a pretty good idea of what kind of pizza I like. However, when the order was placed, my acquaintance decided to change my expressed preference and ordered to a five-topping, all meat pizza. "You'll love this one, it's much better than the pepperoni and mushroom."
The underlying cognition is: I like this better, therefore, you'll like it better also.
This malignant maladaptive thinking limits relationships. Differences are not resolved because ignorance that most likes and beliefs are subjective based on a complex mixture of biology and history. Even if we articulate the facts behind our belief, those facts may not persuade someone to change because their priorities differ.
Different is not wrong.
Apathy Towards Others
Apathy towards others desires is a different animal. These are the narcissists that may clearly hold a theory of your mind, understand what you like, and just not give a damn. They use their knowledge of your likes, fears, and sensitivities, not to bond, but as tools of manipulation.
The apathetic narcissists vary in severity and goals. Whether they seek money, glory, or just approval, they see others as pawns to be used in pursuit of these aims. They speak lovingly to your face, even order your favorite pizza, but then ignore boundaries, share your secrets, and speak ill of you to others.
Callous apathy is often more associated with psychopathy, one of the other personality types in the dark triad.
Final Thoughts on Narcissistic Encounters
Our roadways are littered with diverse driving personalities. Many successfully put away their roadway aggression and present a more amiable personality at the office and home. Perhaps, the weight of future accountability by those we continue to lean on for our wellness and success is enough to tame narcissistic impulses for most. The aggressive road behaviors of others, however, may represent a deeper narcissistic problem that spills over into many areas of their lives. Dealing with them on the roadway is simple, let them blow off their steam, honk their horn, and move on. Living with a full-blown narcissist is another problems all together. The next off-ramp is not as simple.
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Fromm, E. (2010). The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil. American Mental Health Foundation; Revised ed. edition
Lustman, M., Wiesenthal, D., & Flett, G. (2010). Narcissism and Aggressive Driving: Is an Inflated View of the Self a Road Hazard?. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 40(6),
Park, A., Ickes, W., & Robinson, L.R. (2014). More f#!%ing rudeness: reliable personality predictors of verbal rudeness and other ugly confrontational behaviors. Journal of Aggression, Conflict and Peace Research, 6(1), 26-43.
Twenge, J. M., Campbell, W.K. (2009). The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. Atria Books