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Home / Why the Road Rage? Collective Narcissism and the Cowardly Dehumanisation of Human Beings who Ride Bikes

Why the Road Rage? Collective Narcissism and the Cowardly Dehumanisation of Human Beings who Ride Bikes

by James Stewart
Editor - Couch to the Summit

In Nazi Germany, Heinrich Himmler branded Jews as beasts in human appearance, while the Reich’s Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels’s propaganda depicted imagery of Jews as vermin, large masses of rats, or wriggling lice.1 By depicting Jews in these two different guises, either as a vile animal (the sub-human essence) or as human monsters (humans turned evil), they were able to convince the social mind of Germany that cleansing the Jews was akin to cleansing an infection or virus. It was a terrible act of manipulated dehumanisation to sub-consciously condition ordinary people into becoming capable of extraordinary violence against a marginalised group of people. Professor David Livingstone Smith—an expert on dehumanisation—defines it as a psychological process capable of disabling our moral inhibitions against engaging in acts we otherwise wouldn’t do. Most people will tend to fall in line with populist sentiment when it becomes the majority belief because we fear losing connection in our social groups.

We tend to think of all Nazi’s as monsters, but Livingstone Smith warns, “What’s most disturbing about the Nazi phenomenon is not that the Nazis were madmen or monsters. It’s that they were ordinary human beings.”2 Nazi public culture was constructed and propagandised through a comprehensive system of meaning, transmitted through powerful symbolic rituals, and renewed in communal celebrations with the mantra, “Not every being with a human face is human.”2 Ordinary people were conditioned to exclude Jews from the system of moral rights and obligations binding humankind together. So, while it was wrong to kill a person, it was permissible to exterminate a cockroach or a rat. When the Nazis described Jews as Untermenschen (subhumans), they didn't mean it metaphorically, they meant they were literally subhuman.2 Throughout the testimony of major war criminals at Nuremberg, the common thread in their explanations voiced how decades of propaganda had shaped their worldview to see Jews in this way.

How could ordinary people lose their judgement so badly? We might think the German people were weak for falling to such a scam, they weren’t weak at all, they were industrious and strong people. We might think here in Australia, Australian’s couldn’t be capable of something like this? In WWII, Australian General Sir Thomas Blamey reportedly told troops to view the Japanese as vile animals, “Your enemy is a curious race—a cross between a human being and an ape.… You know that we have to exterminate these vermin if we and our families are to live.…”2 Blamey’s example shows how dehumanising an enemy group is a worldwide tactic for convincing people to kill or maim someone else. It’s far easier to rationalise it when what you kill isn’t perceived to have the same human worth as yourself. Such thinking contributed to acts of corpse mutilation (body parts as trophies) as hunters do with animals they kill. Charles Lindbergh recorded in his wartime diary how servicemen carved penholders and paper knives out of the thigh bones of fallen Japanese soldiers, dug up their decaying corpses to extract gold teeth, and collected ears, noses, teeth, and even skulls as wartime mementos.2 Normally, people tend to respect human corpses, but not if they were considered less than human.

Throughout the history of world violence, Livingstone Smith found repeated references to enemies as subhuman creatures, including ancient Chinese, Egyptian and Mesopotamian literature. When white Europeans colonized the west, they did so on the premise the lands were uninhabited despite existing indigenous populations who were viewed as primitive beings, soulless animals. He explains there is no better way to create enthusiasm for genocide than by representing people as vermin or parasites needing extermination. It was how European colonists perceived the Native Americans and how slave owners thought.

Civil rights activist Morgan Godwyn’s description of 17th century dehumanisation of African slaves made it clear colonists viewed them as sub-human creatures. Slave-owners told him Negros carried resemblances of manhood, but were not men, they were “creatures destitute of souls, to be ranked among brute beasts, and treated accordingly.”3 Some slave owners fed their slaves out hog troughs to emphasize their sub-human animal nature both socially and metaphysically. Many protests about equal rights reiterated the need for the oppressed to be viewed as human beings. For example, “Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis while supporting a labor strike by sanitation workers whose rallying cry was ‘I am a man.’” 4 It was a cry for people to step back and see the equal humanity we all share.

I could write this same article about many topics. The contemporary tirade against people who ride bicycles is just another example of everything wrong with society repeating the same old mistake over and over again throughout the centuries. Now cycling groups are pleading with motorists to stop and think, that “I am a human being” and somehow end the aggression on our roads. Remove the word cyclists from this equation, and you can apply it against any in-group that dehumanises an out-group.

I started writing this article many months ago, but never got around to completing it until today, when I read about a new study in Australia basically confirming everything I planned to write about. The March 2019 study Face off -- Cyclists not human enough for drivers conducted by Monash University and Queensland University of Technology’s Centre for Accident Research & Road Safety confirms dehumanisation as the principle driver behind road rage and aggression against human beings on bicycles. Dehumanisation is typically only studied to describe attitudes of racial and ethnic violence, but this study became the first one specifically about attitudes on our roads.

The researchers found many slurs against cyclists comparing them to insects, particularly rodents and cockroaches and formed the basis of the study, “Participants in the study were given either the iconic evolution of ape to man image, or an adaption of that image showing the stages of evolution from cockroach to human.”5 Reading through comments on the many articles on cyclists versus motorists and I often see the phrase “road cockroaches” show up by scornful motorists. The study found more than half of car drivers think cyclists are not completely human, with a link between the dehumanisation of bicycle riders and acts of deliberate aggression towards them on the road. The QUT write, “Acts of aggression towards cyclists were not uncommon, with 17 per cent saying they had used their car to deliberately block a cyclist, 11 per cent had deliberately driven their car close to a cyclist and 9 per cent had used their car to cut off a cyclist.”5 When half the population think dehumanising thoughts and 17% act out aggresively on such thoughts, we have a serious problem.

Social psychologist James Waller believes four traits act together to push normal people to commit violence against others:

1. Xenophobia and desire for social dominance;

2. Moral disengagement;

3. Socialization and a culture of cruelty, the merger of role and person;

4. Dehumanization, blaming of the victims and us-them thinking. 1

All these factors are apparent in road rage situations, but dehumanisation is what ultimately pushes us over the edge in moments of anger, stress and emotional weakness.

The researchers confirm that putting a human face to cyclists would ultimately reduce aggression and improve the road toll. How road authorities do that is the difficult journey ahead in changing socially ingrained negative attitudes and behaviour. You only have to read the comments section on the all too often provocative media articles stoking the fire between motorists and cyclists. Occasionally, the road authorities step in to imbue the mob with some stern parenting. Department of Transport and Main Roads in Queensland suggests before you start making jokes about hitting bike riders with your car, “You're not as original as you think” and “You’re talking about a human life.”

The dehumanising attitudes are largely flamed from the safety and protection of one’s keyboard, but these debates fuel changes in our subconscious thinking that surface in moments of irrational emotionality. Rage fuelled marked impairment is a common feature seen in people who end up killing or hurting others in a non-premeditated situation.

French polymath and psychologist Gustave Le Bon’s book The Psychology of the Crowds discusses the behaviour of mobs in the French Revolution, functioning by a form of group mind suggestibility whereby normal civilised individuals become capable of contradicting their own moral beliefs within the confines of a group.1 Bon states, “Isolated, he may be a cultivated individual, in a crowd, he is a barbarian —that is, a creature acting by instinct.”6 Anonymity within a group reduces personal responsibility creating impulsivity and feelings of invincibility. Perhaps, this is why most road rage incidents happen against strangers in a perceived state of anonymity. Not anymore, the rising use of dash-cams and bike-cams is now relaying to the world the reality of what happens on our roads. It makes for grim viewing. Most incidents of aggression against people on bicycles—including direct impacts—involve a motorist fleeing following the incident. They think they can get away with it, which is why they do it. Its selfishness and cowardice, plain and simple.

Social psychologists suggest we tend to dismiss outsiders as individuals (called out-group homogeneity bias) enabling us to stereotype and even oppress an entire group.2 Our ability to have empathy for another human being increases when we understand their personal story, but without any personalised context, we lose the context of their human nature and similarity as people. We lower their intrinsic worth as human being because we perceive them as simply “different” to us, and subsequently, a threat.

Sociologists believe most of us cannot move beyond our self-interest in any social collective. Matt Ridley—an expert on the evolution of social cooperation—believes we are built to be social, trustworthy, cooperative, but also selfish.7 Haidt sees this “hivishness” as something inevitably blinding us to other moral concerns, “Our bee-like nature facilitates altruism, heroism, war, and genocide.”8 A social collectives ultimate goal of altruistic cooperation often fails to extend beyond a group’s boundaries or seeks to flatten hierarchies entirely which has its own problems.

On our roads, any single road user group can perceive themselves and others using the same mode of transport as a singular social collective. This is why people driving the same make and model of car may sometimes wave at each other, why motorcyclists or cyclists often wave at each other when they pass. These are nice gestures not extended to other road users who are different. Its fun to do and basic human nature to build social connections with others we perceive similar. Most people are good people, who just want to belong. The downside is it can warp our sensibility toward those who we perceive as outsiders when we feel frustrated during our journey for whatever reason. For some people it manifests as minor aggression, but for others on the extreme fringe it can escalate and becomes dangerous for everyone on the roads.

For motorists, you can constantly see this in comments on cycling articles. “Cyclists get away with breaking the road rules, its not fair.” or “They don’t pay for our roads, they need to be registered so we can hold them accountable!” General taxes pay for the roads not vehicle registration. No one group has more ownership of the road than any other. The roads are a shared benefit of living in a taxed society of mutual benefit to all. Some people use the roads more than others, but there are no tax benefits to those who don’t. It’s not how society works to micromanage complete fairness for who pays for essential services. If you earn money, you pay, simple as that. The fairest approach would be tax benefits to people who don’t register a vehicle, who use public transport or ride bicycles because most road expenses go on road maintenance due to vehicle damage. The victim-based reality of motorists are all irrational beliefs constantly debunked by road authorities, police forces and academics who closely study these things. Yes, people on bicycles do run red lights. Sometimes bicycles don’t trigger traffic lights. Cars also run red lights too. Such issues are not a group problem, they are an individual problem, but we mark a group for the actions of a few.

Selfishness is intimately tied to the ever-increasing wave of narcissism spreading through modern society. Narcissism becomes collective, where an individual has an inflated self-love of his or her own ingroup and believes their group deserves special treatment. Collective narcissism was the term developed by Theodore Adorno assigning it as the driver behind the rise to power of the Nazis throughout the 1930s. Such collectives form when people develop an emotional dependence on a group and prejudice others selectively. Individuals will become hostile when their group is not properly recognised or when it is criticised because it threatens the grandiose image they have of it. Sociologist William Graham Sumner calls this ethnocentrism, when one group or culture becomes the centre of everything, exalting its superiority beyond all others. He found it exists all over the world from modern nations to primitive tribes. Collective narcissism overlaps similarly to ethnocentrism but extends beyond the ethnic or cultural level to any type of ingroup.

The major psychological dynamic behind dehumanisation is believing the universe is arranged as a hierarchy of value. We naturally tend to classify life in terms of intrinsic importance based on intelligence levels, such as relegating nonhuman animals to a lower position in this hierarchy.9,2 Discrimination is a thinking error classifying others as having less intrinsic humanity; where someone appears as a human-looking creature but comprises a sub-human essence or no human essence at all. Livingstone Smith believes this principle is crucial for understanding dehumanisation, “Scientifically speaking, this is nonsense. There's no such thing as a…human essence. Nevertheless, the essentialist mindset is deeply entrenched in the human psyche, and powerfully influences the ways that we make sense of the world.”9

What enables us to conceive of others as less than human, Livingstone Smith asks? He believes the architecture of our minds makes us vulnerable to persuasion because of our natural bias toward outsiders and protecting our in-group. Dehumanisation is completely learned behaviour, a cultural process, not a biological one. “Dehumanization is bound up with the intricacies of symbolic culture, including notions of value, hierarchy, race, and the cosmic order. It is something that only a human brain could concoct.”2

While many of us believe we are non-violent, peaceful and caring human beings, Psychology Professor Donald Dutton reports the majority of us “are capable of the most horrific violence against fellow humans when a ‘perfect storm’ of social conditions exists.”1 When someone is not viewed as having a fully human essence, it can escalate feelings of resentment leading toward a giant leap in justification of hatred and aggression. Most people draw the line somewhere, typically choosing to vent their aggression to prove a point. This is why many aspects of road rage to people on bicycles involves what cycling groups now phrase the “Coward’s pass”, in a similar vein to the “Coward’s punch” stigma denouncing people who cause death from a single punch. This campaign has been very successful in raising the profile and changing social attitudes against on-the-spot street violence. Most people in society are now aware throwing a single punch could kill someone, ruin your life and result in social vilification as coward. Social disapproval does enough to stop most manifestations of such behaviour. Our primal instinct is to never do something so bad as to get ourselves kicked out of the tribe. Changing the social group perception is the only solution.

Dehumanisation invariably starts at the top, portrayed by authority and then permeates through society and its overall culture and beliefs that never make us functionally integrated into all layers of identity. Government’s who do not treat all road user groups with equal relevance on the roads, and the media who stoke the fire of division between road user groups, have fanned the flames of this dehumanising ground swell. They need to finally step up with a proper road-user awareness campaign and implement across the board protection laws—including policing—for vulnerable road users. That said, the overall change ultimately needs to occur at the resolution of the individual.

Don’t think because in your own mind you consider yourself a good person that in a very brief moment of emotional frustration the worst cannot be brought out. History proves you wrong, time and time again. If you think in your frustration, I’ll just give this “road cockroach” cyclist a bit of a scare or not give them safe space because he impedes MY road space, that I paid for and HE didn’t, and get away with it. Please consider that in your emotional fog you could actually accidentally kill or seriously injure a fellow human being with friends and family and feelings just like you. It happens all the time. The solution to fixing your mental block is putting a human face (like the face of a family member) on the stranger cyclist.

The QUT confirms a growing push to avoid the word cyclist, because of its negative connotations. “Let's talk about people who ride bikes rather than cyclists because that's the first step towards getting rid of this dehumanisation.” Dehumanisation starts with divisive labels, because in Nazi Germany the propaganda only worked because a group of people were placed in a box outside the human one. The QUT writes, “Ultimately we want to understand this process so we can do a better job at putting a human face to people who ride bikes, so that hopefully we can help put a stop to the abuse.”

The group divide aggression has to stop on all sides to step back from this primal thinking-error that has plagued human societies for centuries. Many people riding bikes who have been passed dangerously, feel they must react with aggression back at the driver. Sadly, it only fuels the cycle of resentment, and cements the thought in the person driving the vehicle that their aggression was justified. The behaviour is understandable because people on bikes feel nothing will change unless they do something in that moment to show the motorist they did something wrong. The only way forward is to change social attitudes broadly, not respond specifically and on emotion in a single moment. This is advice for all road user groups.

Authorities need more road user campaigns to show road rage as cowardice. People don’t like being called cowards, but road aggression is cowardly. We all know it, but we can’t help ourselves in the moments on the road when the loss of an inconsequential few seconds because of a slower road user, or someone breaking the rules, scratches that little itch of misery inside of us. Until enough social momentum pushes road rage into the realm of cowardly social disapproval, we are doomed to stay stuck in this cycle of violence.

Road rage typically manifests due to unresolved anger and stress from something else in your life. Reading the comments on some articles I noticed some motorists reported feel better from venting frustrations at cyclists. In the end, rage is a venting mechanism that relieves some internal pressure temporarily, but there are many safer ways to vent your emotions than risking someone else’s safety. That’s why its cowardly.

The best treatment for anger, stress and frustration? Exercise in the outdoors, and this is perhaps the irony. Perhaps, some of this angst is because someone else is getting some outdoor exercise while you’re not. They remind you of the worst part of yourself, the unhealthy lazy part or the one who puts off exercise. Japanese scientists have found movement in nature to be a miracle drug. Nearly a quarter of the Japanese population participate in shinrin-yoku (forest bathing). Between 2.5 million and 5 million visitors walk Japan’s 48 official forest therapy trails each year. Shinrin-yoku therapy is inspired by ancient Shinto and Buddhist practices where patients walk for extended periods through forested areas, at times sitting quietly, inhaling the scents, and letting nature enter the body through all five senses. Our senses evolved in the natural world, so it makes sense we should “bath” them in nature if we want a healthy way to vent our stress. People come from the city and shower in the greenery, helping to avoid karoshi (death by overwork). Nature is the best stress reliever, and some introspection time and exercise in it will make you a lot less reactionary and maybe give you the mental timeout to gain the perspective needed to break yourself out of cycle of dehumanisation.


1. Dutton, Donald G. The Psychology of Genocide, Massacres, and Extreme Violence: Why "Normal" People Come to Commit Atrocities . s.l. : Praeger Security International , 2007 .

2. Smith, David Livingstone. Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others. s.l. : St. Martin's Griffin, 2012.

3. Dehumanization, essentialism, and moral psychology. [Online].

4. The psychology of hate: How we deny human beings their humanity . [Online].

5. Face off—Cyclists not human enough for drivers: study. [Online].

6. Bon, Gustave Le. The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind . 1896.

7. Ridley, Matt. The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation. s.l. : Penguin , 1998.

8. Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. s.l. : Vintage, 2013.

9. Dehumanization, Genocide, and the Psychology of Indifference. [Online]