A Theory of Psychological Car-Dependence

A Theory of Psychological Car-Dependence: Why We ‘Love’ Our Cars
by Chris Bradshaw (written in 2012 for a special issue of the journal of the Canadian Association for the Club of Rome, of which I was guest editor — but it was never published by them).

The Car as Integral Part of Consumption at Its Current Unsustainable Level

What is poorly understood is that the automobile is not just powered by an engine; it is an engine of sorts: it induces and facilitates both the hyper-consumption of resources, including land, as well as playing a significant role in stimulating the “reward pathways” in the brain, which medical science is just now being able to pinpoint (Kessler, David A. M.D. (2009) The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable North American Appetite.  Even though SUV owners refer to their vehicle’s off-road capability (its “sport capability,” despite being rarely used), its other capability – Utility – is used much more often to carry big boxes from appropriately named big-box stores.  If stores offer delivery at all, it is charged for, including the U-drive vans at Home Depots that rent for $19 for 90 minutes plus gas, slightly more than carsharing would charge (but those who use these vans have, first, to get to  – and later get back from – the suburban store by other means).  Cars are also used for something that catalog — and on-line shopping — can’t provide: an ability to touch and experience the product.

I have developed my own theory, which I first explained in a piece I wrote for the journal, Local Environment (“Using Our Feet to Reduce Our Footprint” Vol 2, no. 1, 1997; available at http//hearthhealth.wordpress.com/about/previously-published-works/feet-first-early/using-our-feet-to-reduce-our-footprint-the-importance-of-scale-in-life/).  It postulates that modern life is a dynamic cycle of resentment and reward, each feeding the other, around and around, as the crankshaft in a car engine revolves through the mixing of volatile elements of fuel, air, and electric spark).  Resentment is often fed by being in asymmetical relationships with the very large organizations that dominate life today, whose very size makes it unhearing when customers, employees, or suppliers ask for exceptions to its rules and processes.  Resentment comes from the insensitive way one is treated by those who have more power than us and are insensitive to our emotional needs.  It also comes from relationships with family and friends corroded by their distraction by these large institutions and their own frantic search for rewards and how they will earn the means to acquire them.  What makes it worse over time is that the cost, in money, to acquire these rewards (and bankrolling them for our dependents who follow our example) is great and we find ourselves seeking means to gain that money through promotions, exceeding performance quota, working overtime, and taking on an extra job.  Each of these measures forces us to subject ourselves even more to large-scale forces that simply, over time, increase our resentments, thus making resentment and reward an endless look of mutual reinforcement.

There are two healthy alternatives.  One is to “simplify” one’s life by scaling down one’s life to be more local by dealing exclusively with small-scale employers and retailers.  It also calls for finding one’s pleasures from friends, family, and neighbours (who likewise are focused on their local world), rather than from large-scale media and the institutions it serves, which only exposes the person to more advertising.  The second way to deal with resentment is to act on the offending parties to change their behaviour so that it is fairer and more responsive.  But that requires taking risks of social and political activism, something for which most people lack the aptitude or chutzpah..  Resentment is, after all, an emotion, and it is supposed  to stimulate the person feeling it to make a change to end the conditions that caused it.  But resentment seems to be uniquely resilient to such action, thus living up to it root meaning: “re-feeling.”

The vast majority of people, though, let it continue and grow, assuaging their hurt feelings and numbness with even more rewards.  It’s simple: resentment makes them feel bad, and rewards make them feel good.  Kessler (above) shows how we use food that way, overeating foods that are engineered to please the mind more than fuel the body.  When we give ourselves “treats,” we are also “treating” our symptoms of resentment.  In that original essay, I developed seven different reward categories, to which I have added an eighth.

On the psychological level, the reliance on the car is even greater.  I have seen almost no psychological rationale for car dependency and for why people are seduced into spending so much money on cars.  And people insist on exclusive private access to a car so that their need to drive can be met immediately, unlike those who carshare, who have to plan their trips by making reservations) and then travel a short distance to the car, and also to accept a choice of car that might not be their ideal.  What has been written tends to be shallow, such as suggestions that styling evokes the promise of sexual encounters with ideal partners.

Before I outline the many ways owning and driving a car provides rewards to counterbalance resentment, it is useful to consider whether they also cause certain resentments?  After all, the advertising and other promotions of cars implies that “cars-equal-freedom”.   But the reality might be closer to a form of dependence that is far from a state of freedom.

1) Car Costs – The new book, Stop Signs [Mugyenyi and Engler, 2011] points out that most owners work from January 1 to March 31 before their take-home pay has covered their annual car costs.  Ivan Illich, in his well-known 1977 essay, Energy and Equity, calculates the high costs in a different way:

“The model American male devotes more than 1,600 hours a year to his car.  He sits in it while it goes and while it stands idling.  He parks it and searches for it.  He earns the money to put down on it and to meet the monthly instalments.  He works to pay for gasoline, tolls, insurance, taxes, and tickets.  He spends four of his sixteen waking hours on the road or gathering resources for it.  And this figure does not take into account the time consumed by other activities dictated by transport: time spent in hospitals, traffic courts, and garages; time spent watching automobile commercials or attending consumer education meetings to improve the quality of the next buy.  The model American spends 1,600 hours to get 7,500 miles: less that five miles per hour.” [p 18, 1973, Perennial Library, Harper & Row]]

Obviously, riding a bike would be more efficient – and now slower.  A more current assessment comes from UrbanCountry blogster, James Schwartz, who suggests that a driver toils for 2-3 hours a day at his job to pay for his car.

2) Scrutiny from above – driving is not only a lethal activity, but it takes place in public where children, old people and the disabled, not to mention the high and mighty walk or get chaperoned.  It is not surprising that the state, insurance companies, and many research organizations want to watch you drive, or to have access to various driving data after the fact.  Progressive Insurance, for instance, will reduce your rates if you allow them to install a ‘black box’ on your car to do this.  (Reward programs work the same way).  This reality is in sharp contrast to the ‘freedom’ driving is supposed to provide.

3) Car’s reliability & maintenance responsibilities and risks – Although car reliability has increased over the years, as it does in all mature markets, it has come at a price.  The devices on cars that help the owner-driver avoid problems can, themselves, become problems, buzzing or flashing at problems that mechanics can never find.  The resulting complexity can be costly, even if the repairs are included in the warranty, since each visit to a garage takes time, as these places are often far out in places where travel options are very limited.  It is also costly – in the name of protecting one’s investment – to clean a car thoroughly, especially after a young child vomits over the car’s interior.

4) Ability to reach destinations without delays or frustrations – No travel should come with a guarantee that one will arrive as soon as one expects to.  But the traffic engineers and the car companies come close to guaranteeing that drivers will not get lost, not get slowed by congestion or stopped by others’ collisions or rattled by dopey drivers who aren’t looking where they are going.  But the truth is that driving a car puts those in a private car in a more vulnerable position than any other mode.  Walkers and cyclists have sidewalks to use to keep moving, and even those on a bus can get off and walk past the obstruction, and then switch to another vehicle that is unobstructed on the far side.  When reality falls short of the engineers’ promises, drivers rush.

5) Worrying about Getting Injured or Worse – Even though pedestrians, cyclists, and those waiting on the side of the road for a ride are truly vulnerable, the driver is the one that is out there in the middle of a veritable jungle.  His shell of metal induces him to go farther and faster.  Unlike the “vulnerable,” the driver has to worry about his ability to do great harm to another person – or several – by just being distracted for a second. Frumkin, et al, (above) point to research of increased heart rates and adrenaline rushes experienced regularly by drivers [pp. 140-141]

6) Being Responsible for Maintaining a Complex Machine – Much resentment comes from the duties of ownership of an object of great complexity and regulatory control.  Dealing with a “sick” car puts the owner at the mercy of the car dealers, the car company, regulator agencies, and insurers, all denying their own responsibilities by being deceitful and taking advantage of the owner’s unfamiliarity with car technology or the law.

All these problems can and often do cause frustration, but turn that into resentment because big interests – car dealers, car companies, municipal police and parking agents, regulatory provincial agencies, insurance companies, towing companies – hold all the cars.  They also promise too much, knowing that the promise helps keep the price of the object high, affecting their budgets:

Table One: The Rewards of Owning and Driving a Car

[Reward Category — Example of Role Car plays in satisfying — (Driving or Ownership?)]
1.  Taking Risks  —  The act of driving an instrument of mobility with lethal capabilities is the #1 way we regularly  take risks.  Risk -taking makes us feel more “alive”    (Driving)
2.  Impressing Others  — The car is the most visible and portable of all our possessions and says who we are.  We pick a model with certain amenities and then maintain it so as to exceed others’ standards.    (Owning)
3.  Reducing Anxiety — Although mood-altering substances are usually thought of most in this category, the driving experience also reduces anxiety by shutting “the world” out.  (Driving)
4.  Providing Distraction — The act of driving requires total attention, so much so that “distracted driving” is a new, and growing, safety concern.  However, although the newest distraction – the cellphone – is being targeted, the older distractions of eating, smoking, and disciplining children, now required to be out of sight and reach in the rear seats, are not.  (Driving)
5.  Controlling others — The way we drive and the kind of car we own combine to say to others on the road that you have power.  As much as we fear hurting others, we like them knowing that we could.  The consumer trend to SUVs seems to a way to increase this power. High and Mighty author, Keith Bradsher (2002) says they also make us less social (vs. mini-van owners).    (Driving and Owning)
6.  Escaping Responsibilities — The car is the #1 device for escaping what causes resentment: work, family pressures (and why each driver in a family expects to have their own car), and even the scrutiny of those watching their driving (see next para.).  The car is also a cocoon, shutting out the “elements”: crime, grime, people who would do us harm or insult us.    (Driving and Owning)
7.  Small Indulgences — There is no place more imbued with small indulgences (the term coined by Faith Popcorn in The Popcorn Report, 1991) than the way we ‘accessorize’ cars.  Everything from the sound system, to the leather seats with multi controls, to GPS devices and the contraption that turns the front passenger seat into an office.  There are also the powered door-locks, windows, and door-opening and closing extras, plus some that relieve us of failure (or heart failure) when parallel parking.    (Owning and Driving)
8.  Touching “Greatness” — Although cars can make the driver feel more important, this term refers to our desire to be in the same room as great people: sports stars, actors, authors, all of whom make personal appearances to which admission is many times what their mass-market artifacts sell for.  The car is instrumental in reaching the venues.  Warning: the cost of parking will cause resentment.    (Driving)

Even though driving is still available in a society that primarily uses MASC, its occurrence drops considerably, and the car’s amenities and status are much lower.  The transition causes people to ask, “Which driving behaviours simply get us to our destination and use resources collaboratively (as does the oldest mode, walking), and which behaviours intimidate others and constitute risks for the sake of excitement or provide some other reward?”

The R&R cycle comes full-circle when rewards cause resentment.  How?  Almost all rewards cost money, and what we have to do to get more of it — working more, working under ethically challenging conditions, going into debt, or outright breaking the law – all create even more stress which we resent.  The book, Your Money or Your Life (Robin and Domingues, 1992), points out that many of the ways people earn money carry costs in terms of money (commuting, extra clothes, and eating out) or emotional wear-and-tear that result from of selling one’s time and attention to a large concern who uses it to further its goals and produce profits in ways that one may not agree with (itself a major source of resentment).

I refer to the above negative, downward R&R cycle as the “burn cycle,” a downward cycle of deterioration of the psyche.  But there is a virtuous cycle, the upward “learn cycle” that, while also circular, creates a sustainable outcome: The two components of the learn cycle are refraction and reflection, terms most often associated with the science of optics. Our life is a spiral of acting on the world around us – a refractory medium – that gives us feedback (refraction) that is valuable for learning, which happens when we think about how each action turned up compared to our expectations (reflection).  The result is an upward spiral of learning the character of our ever-expanding, and therefore ever more complex, world, and, in parallel, building up in one’s mind a map, or mental model, of it.

The life journey is a long road that has danger on one side and boredom (of things already learned) on the other; we steer a course that gives us an amount of each that matches our preferences.  Each child is happiest mastering his world each day, and triggered by bouts of boredom, carefully expands that world in small increments.  That process requires that they have independence of movement to explore what fascinates them and to comes to terms with it enough to be able to move to a wider domain.  But the auto-dependent lives of their parents and the scale of the institutions they are turned over to for most of their time away from home (school, sports leagues, lessons, hobby groups) mean they are always watched over and nudged toward particular activities and the lessons of each. [Hillman, Mayer, et al. One False Move: a Study of Children’s Independent Mobility (with John Adams and John Whitelegg), 1991]

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