Do you have any bumper stickers on your car right now? What do they say? More importantly, what do they say about you? And how do you react when driving behind a car festooned with bumper stickers? These seemingly simple and harmless decals can have greater, unintended implications, and backfire in the messages they convey.
A recent study in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology (via Wise Bread) shows that people with bumper stickers on their cars are more prone to aggressive driving and road rage. The connection? Like any other animal, humans are territorial, and those who mark their territory—in this case, their car—with bumper stickers are more likely to defend and dominate the space they occupy on the road.
Furthermore, the study found that drivers who display peaceful or religious bumper stickers (“Follow Your Bliss,” the Ichthys “Jesus fish” symbol, etc.) were just as likely to drive aggressively as those who displayed other kinds. And the more stickers a car displayed, the more aggressively its driver behaved. By that logic, we should steer well clear of the car pictured above.
This study comes on the heels of a thoughtful essay in the most recent issue of Fourth Genre entitled “My Volvo, My Self: The (Largely Unintended) Existential Implications of Bumper Stickers,” by Leslie Hayworth (article not available online).
Bumper stickers enforce our instincts toward stereotyping and oversimplification. Hayworth cites her own tendency to assume the worst about anyone displaying a Bush/Cheney decal or yard sign, and touches on various news stories about bumper stickers exploding into road rage and even workplace terminations. She reasons that the root of the problem lies in a bumper sticker’s distillation of big, complex matters into a glib meme, divorced from the complicated human being who holds that opinion: “Bumper stickers just say too much too soon.... When you argue via a bumper sticker, your argument is dehumanized and decontextualized.”
While I try not to jump to any conclusions about drivers of cars bearing antagonistic bumper stickers, knee-jerk reactions are hard to resist—especially in rush hour traffic, and especially during presidential campaigns. It makes me wonder what people assume when they see my own car, which bears only a sticker for the local public radio station and the Apple Computers logo. For all I know, even those relatively innocuous symbols speak volumes about some dark corner of my psyche, or at least my occasional tendency to change lanes without signaling.