The empathy factor

One frequently hears about the “safety in numbers” effect as it relates to cycling.  An increase in cyclists results in greater bicycle exposure to motorists and thereby improves driving behavior.  This is simple and rational enough. Most people are inherently good and have no desire to harm an innocent, but how do we reach the hardcore bike haters…those rare individuals who are hell bent on running cyclists off the road?

During the Nuremberg trials Captain G.M.Glibert, an Army psychologist, made the following observation:

“In my work with the defendants, I was searching for the nature of evil and I now think I have come close to defining it. A lack of empathy. It’s the one characteristic that connects all the defendants, a genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow men.”

We have all experienced the dehumanizing effects of being shut up in a car while stuck in terrible traffic.  The metal and glass barriers give us the illusion of safety and complete control; the car is our sanctuary.  We rage against our fellow humans in ways that would be unthinkable in virtually any other setting.  To put it simply, the car sucks the empathy right out of us and makes us dictatorial rulers of the road.

“Fuck that guy.  I’m running late and need to get to work.  I’m only running the red light a little bit.”

To what degree does empathy towards our fellow humans drive the “safety in numbers effect?”  Are drivers in Bremen, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen safer drivers simply because of the sheer volume of cyclists they encounter, or is it because their friends and families are also cyclists?  I suspect that it’s the emotional entanglement, the ability to empathize with cyclists, that really drives the safety in numbers effect.  If empathy is the key to driving a permanent change in driver habits, perhaps cycling advocates need to keep this in mind. What is the predominant stereotype of “the cyclist” and is this person somebody that John Q Public can empathize with?

If I were to interview car commuters from the suburbs, people with no attachment to cycling at all, my bet is that the typical stereotype of American cyclists would include some or all of the following:

  • Arrogant
  • Law breaking
  • “Granola”/hippie
  • Insufferable hipster
  • Holier than thou
  • Freakishly dressed
  • Young
  • Smug
  • Car hating
  • Green
  • Helmet/safety zealot
  • Dreamers
  • Liberal

Is this the type of person that’s easy for the suburban car commuter to empathize with?  Probably not.  Of course, this is just a stereotype but unfortunately our perception often becomes reality.

The Latter Day Saints recently launched a brilliant campaign designed to challenge the stereotype of Mormons being a mostly white, affluent, and Utah-based religion (all in the hopes of driving converts no doubt – just like cycling advocates).  A sexy surfer from Hawaii or a scruffy Harley rider from middle America is introduced to the viewer culminating with the tagline “I’m a Mormon.”  Perhaps cyclists could learn from this approach to challenge its predominant stereotype.  What would the “I’m a Cyclist” campaign look like?

Ozzie Guillen brings a portable bike with him and rides to away games. How cool is that?

Of one thing I am certain.  Cycling will never become a popular or accepted form of transportation in America as long as the “fringe cyclist” stereotype persists.  “Evil” road raging maniacs will never adapt their behavior until the current mold is broken.  The Germanic model of cycling (normal bikes, normal people, normal risk assessment) as transportation is so much closer to “the average Joe” and easier to empathize with than the Anglo model (sporty bikes, political people, broken risk assessment).  Is it possible that our cycling culture is in itself limiting its popularity?  Building empathy amongst the “cagers” is key to changing the game.  Cycling advocates should be looking long and hard in the mirror and asking themselves what exactly it is that they’re pushing.


5 responses to “The empathy factor

  1. “Normal bikes, normal people, normal risk assessment”

    I couldn’t agree more. On a recent trip through Europe, I observed large trucks patiently waiting to overtake an elderly lady on a busy road without a bike path. No angst, no honking, just a short wait then passing with plenty of room.

    She was someone’s mother and grandmother, probably of someone they knew.

  2. Excellent post, Tad. The temptation is to stereotype the “bad driver” as well – here in the UK he’s is usually thought of as a young dude with short-cropped hair and loud music blaring out of the (open) car window. But in fact, such drivers in cycling-friendly cities generally behave extremely well towards cyclists. And some of the worst “offenders” in the UK are in fact sweet old ladies.

  3. anarchotoads

    As an arrogant law breaking holier than thou car hating freakishly dressed smugly green young hippie, I can definitely agree that people tend to think of all cyclists that way, but you can hardly complain because a lot of these stereotypes come through because cycling IS a political choice for a lot of people, whereas for the majority, cars are the easier choice. People cycle for many reasons; people drive cars because it’s easy. In countries like the UK and the US where corporations rule, it’s becoming more and more difficult to commit to cycling as groceries, shopping, etc move further away from our neighbourhoods and into shocking collectivised consumer markets in the suburbs/industrial estates.
    As Richard says, here in the UK there is an unfair stereotyping of the young, bad driver, but in truth a lot of anti-cyclist sentiment that I see is stirred up by the mainstream media which categorises cycling in the ways you listed. I’m sure others can attest to the stupid, fuel-guzzling attitudes and gung ho driving mindsets that the likes of Top Gear promote.

  4. Tad,

    Great post. Awesome picture! Thanks for the empathy element. I hadn’t thought about it in those terms with cycling, but I think you’re right. From a group think perspective, the de-humanizing of the opposition is something that contributes greatly to the we-they. Same thing at play with the cycling-noncycling crowd. If more rode, more may be more empathetic (not better) drivers. I ride a lot less in Iowa City than I did in Mpls. I find that there are bad cyclists just like there are bad drivers. But, I think I’m still empathetic. I look forward to using my bike for commuting, but can’t ride nearly 80 miles a day on a bike.

    Thanks again for the post and the insight.

  5. When I’m stopped at an intersection for a red light and a fixie blows past me and scoots around the intersection, all I can think of is it’s one more blow for cycling. But when I watch cars drive up the bike lane so they can race to a red light, I think that’s the motorist we all love to hate. Jerks on both sides, each thinking he/she should rule the road. Ultimately I do believe that more cyclists will make us more visible and everyone more used to sharing the road, though there will always be jerks.

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