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The Psychology of the Car

By: , Posted on: August 16, 2017

Perhaps a book on the “psychology of the car” demands a positioning of the author. As probably most readers of this book, I have been socialized in a car-centric world. Growing up in a suburban area about 5 km outside a medium-sized town in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, most of my childhood memories are entangled in transport dependency; we went to school by bus, were taken to sports practice by car, and drove to see family or friends on weekends. I got my driving license 08-08-88, a magic date marking independence more than my 18th birthday a day earlier. Soon after, the car afforded my first better-paid student job as a newspaper photographer and freelancer. I also associate the car with first escapes, driving nowhere in particular in the middle of the night with a friend, movement being a goal in its own right. The car was the means of transport during my first “real” holiday, a trip to Spain with my girlfriend (and later wife) at the age of 22. We drifted “south” in search of October warmth, and prayed that the car, her father’s aged VW Golf, wouldn’t break down. Countless trips have been made by car since then, and we (still) own a small car today. However, trains became our favorite transport mode a long time ago, and as a family, we nowadays associate highways with congestion and stress, places to avoid.

Yet, this is only half the story of my relationship with the car. In my childhood days in the 1970s, suburban structures were different. In most small communities, there existed a local post office, a bank, an ice cream parlor, a restaurant, and a local minimarket, catering to a few thousand people (these are long gone). Because everything you needed was close by, people walked or cycled. I have been told that I rode my little bicycle to the day care center for the first time when I was 3 years old. When I turned 7, school required a longer trip, which I later made by bike as well. Today, this would probably pass as a serious case of parental neglect, as I had to ride along a major road with a 100 km/h speed limit and no safety strip, and I remember cars flying by in a blur while pedaling up the hill. At the age of 16, it took all my savings to buy a British racing bike, which brought independence and speed. I loved that silver, smooth bike, and even today, riding a bike continues to represent my idea of freedom.

Our daughter was born into this constellation in 2005. She surprised us when her first word was bil (Swedish for “car”), bearing evidence of the great fascination cars have for children. At the age of two and a half, she told her astonished parents from the back seat of the car that “When I am grown up, I will buy a car and drive around all day.” At the age of 6, she began walking to primary school every morning, and later on, at the age of 10, she started to ride her bike to the new school 2 km away. At 12, she has an ambivalent relationship with cars, which she occasionally likes (to be taken someplace), though normally despises because she knows that cars contribute to climate change and air pollution. Such views are not necessarily the norm. My wife, a teacher in a rural area, recently asked third-graders how they imagined their lives as grown-ups. The children agreed on only one thing: they would all own a car.

Why this book, then? Perhaps, on the most basic level, it is a matter of curiosity. When you live in a car-centered world, you want to make sense of it. I am also fascinated with traffic emotions. As a bicyclist, I have been shot angry looks, yelled at, and been (almost) run over more often than I care to remember. As a driver and passenger in a car, I have seen all sorts of reckless driving, and witnessed the death of a young woman in an accident. There is aggressiveness in the automotive system that has troubled me for a long time. During the research for this book, I told my daughter about car “faces,” and asked her what she would make of a car with four headlights. She did not have to think: “It’s a monster.” Perhaps this is what I have had on my mind all along, that a world without monsters must be a more desirable one.

This book is consequently about change. It is meant to contribute to an understanding of the psychological roots of automobile culture, through which it becomes possible to envision, design, and implement futures in which cars lose relevance. There is a growing movement questioning cars. Governments have started to realize that the car is heavily subsidized, with evidence that each driven kilometer incurs a cost to society not covered by taxes, charges, and fees. The car reduces quality of life in cities, and it requires vast areas of land for road infrastructure and parking. Health concerns related to air pollution have emerged worldwide, while the lack of activity of automobile populations is measurable in increasing numbers of people who are overweight and obese. More than 1 million people die every year in traffic accidents, and up to 50 million are injured. Climate change is caused to a large degree by transport emissions. For all of these reasons, we need to rethink the automotive system.

However, actual evidence of change is more limited. New car registrations continue to grow, with expectations of 2 billion cars by 2030, one for every four humans. Many people now spend more time commuting than they are given for their annual holiday. Car sizes, weight, and motorization continue to grow, while nobody would seriously expect political initiatives to significantly curb automobility since the backlash from automobile lobbies is known to be unforgiving. There is also an ominous silence in society on the impacts of the automobile system, and unwillingness to discuss its implications. More people are killed by cars every year than in battle during World War II. The automotive system demands a sacrifice that we are curiously willing to offer.

Observations such as these require a new look at automobility, and this book seeks to understand our fundamental love of cars. It provides a wide range of (old and new) perspectives on automobile admiration, attachment, and addiction. Its most notable insight is perhaps that we are not as much dependent on the car as being made dependent. There are powerful interests at work to psychologically engineer car addiction—addicts, conveniently, never question their behavior. Other insights pertain to the role of cars with regard to emotions, sociality, sex and gender, speed, authority, and death. We need to understand these interrelationships to unlock the possibility of alternative transport futures.

This book was written in the second half of 2016, and it provides an analysis of automobile culture up to this point. It is focused on industrialized countries, and contains much material and many examples from the countries where I am at home, Germany and Sweden. In many ways, this book is limited. Setting out to write a book that would grasp the complexity of our social, cultural, and psychological entanglement with the car, I had to realize that, at best, this book will serve as an introduction. Many linkages are only discussed at the very surface of their complexity, and others barely outlined.

There is also a broad claim underlying this book, i.e., that many of our social norms and personal constructs are influenced by popular culture including movies, literature, music, and games. Movies in particular, as visual media, seem to have great power in shaping personal identities and social norms. In movies, we learn about the world, but we also discover ourselves, and considerable attention is thus paid to the role of popular culture in creating and validating automobile culture.

Last, it is possible that I have misinterpreted or misunderstood results or theories I cite, or contexts I develop. I acknowledge these shortcomings, in the hope that the book will be a starting point for a more comprehensive exploration of this complex field.

Stefan Gössling has professorships in Sweden at both Linnaeus University and Lund University, and is Research Coordinator of the Research Centre for Sustainable Tourism at the Western Norway Research Institute. He has worked in sustainability and transport for more than two decades, is the author or editor of a dozen transportation books , and has published more than 100 papers in leading Transportation journals.

The above article is the Preface to the author’s new book The Psychology of the Car: Automobile Admiration, Attachment, and Addiction and is available online via ScienceDirect. If you would prefer to order a print or e-copy, visit the Elsevier store here. Apply discount code STC317 at checkout and receive 30% off the list price and free global shipping.

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