BBC Column: Why cyclists enrage car drivers

Here is my latest BBC Future column. The original is here. This one proved to be more than usually controversial, not least because of some poorly chosen phrasing from yours truly. This is an updated version which makes what I’m trying to say clearer. If you think that I hate cyclists, or my argument relies on the facts of actual law breaking (by cyclists or drivers), or that I am making a claim about the way the world ought to be (rather than how people see it), then please check out this clarification I published on my personal blog after a few days of feedback from the column. One thing the experience has convinced me of is that cycling is a very emotional issue, and one people often interpret in very moral terms.

It’s not simply because they are annoying, argues Tom Stafford, it’s because they trigger a deep-seated rage within us by breaking the moral order of the road.


Something about cyclists seems to provoke fury in other road users. If you doubt this, try a search for the word “cyclist” on Twitter. As I write this one of the latest tweets is this: “Had enough of cyclists today! Just wanna ram them with my car.” This kind of sentiment would get people locked up if directed against an ethnic minority or religion, but it seems to be fair game, in many people’s minds, when directed against cyclists. Why all the rage?

I’ve got a theory, of course. It’s not because cyclists are annoying. It isn’t even because we have a selective memory for that one stand-out annoying cyclist over the hundreds of boring, non-annoying ones (although that probably is a factor). No, my theory is that motorists hate cyclists because they offend the moral order.

Driving is a very moral activity – there are rules of the road, both legal and informal, and there are good and bad drivers. The whole intricate dance of the rush-hour junction only works because everybody knows the rules and follows them: keeping in lane; indicating properly; first her turn, now mine, now yours. Then along come cyclists, innocently following what they see as the rules of the road, but doing things that drivers aren’t allowed to: overtaking queues of cars, moving at well below the speed limit or undertaking on the inside.

You could argue that driving is like so much of social life, it’s a game of coordination where we have to rely on each other to do the right thing. And like all games, there’s an incentive to cheat. If everyone else is taking their turn, you can jump the queue. If everyone else is paying their taxes you can dodge them, and you’ll still get all the benefits of roads and police.

In economics and evolution this is known as the “free rider problem”; if you create a common benefit  – like taxes or orderly roads – what’s to stop some people reaping the benefit without paying their dues? The free rider problem creates a paradox for those who study evolution, because in a world of selfish genes it appears to make cooperation unlikely. Even if a bunch of selfish individuals (or genes) recognise the benefit of coming together to co-operate with each other, once the collective good has been created it is rational, in a sense, for everyone to start trying to freeload off the collective. This makes any cooperation prone to collapse. In small societies you can rely on cooperating with your friends, or kin, but as a society grows the problem of free-riding looms larger and larger.

Social collapse

Humans seem to have evolved one way of enforcing order onto potentially chaotic social arrangements. This is known as “altruistic punishment”, a term used by Ernst Fehr and Simon Gachter in a landmark paper published in 2002 [4]. An altruistic punishment is a punishment that costs you as an individual, but doesn’t bring any direct benefit. As an example, imagine I’m at a football match and I see someone climb in without buying a ticket. I could sit and enjoy the game (at no cost to myself), or I could try to find security to have the guy thrown out (at the cost of missing some of the game). That would be altruistic punishment.

Altruistic punishment, Fehr and Gachter reasoned, might just be the spark that makes groups of unrelated strangers co-operate. To test this they created a co-operation game played by constantly shifting groups of volunteers, who never meet – they played the game from a computer in a private booth. The volunteers played for real money, which they knew they would take away at the end of the experiment. On each round of the game each player received 20 credits, and could choose to contribute up to this amount to a group project. After everyone had chipped in (or not), everybody (regardless of investment) got 40% of the collective pot.

Under the rules of the game, the best collective outcome would be if everyone put in all their credits, and then each player would get back more than they put in. But the best outcome for each individual was to free ride – to keep their original 20 credits, and also get the 40% of what everybody else put in. Of course, if everybody did this then that would be 40% of nothing.

In this scenario what happened looked like a textbook case of the kind of social collapse the free rider problem warns of. On each successive turn of the game, the average amount contributed by players went down and down. Everybody realised that they could get the benefit of the collective pot without the cost of contributing. Even those who started out contributing a large proportion of their credits soon found out that not everybody else was doing the same. And once you see this it’s easy to stop chipping in yourself – nobody wants to be the sucker.

Rage against the machine

A simple addition to the rules reversed this collapse of co-operation, and that was the introduction of altruistic punishment. Fehr and Gachter allowed players to fine other players credits, at a cost to themselves. This is true altruistic punishment because the groups change after each round, and the players are anonymous. There may have been no direct benefit to fining other players, but players fined often and they fined hard – and, as you’d expect, they chose to fine other players who hadn’t chipped in on that round. The effect on cooperation was electric. With altruistic punishment, the average amount each player contributed rose and rose, instead of declining. The fine system allowed cooperation between groups of strangers who wouldn’t meet again, overcoming the challenge of the free rider problem.

How does this relate to why motorists hate cyclists? The key is in a detail from that classic 2002 paper. Did the players in this game sit there calmly calculating the odds, running game theory scenarios in their heads and reasoning about cost/benefit ratios? No, that wasn’t the immediate reason people fined players. They dished out fines because they were mad as hell. Fehr and Gachter, like the good behavioural experimenters they are, made sure to measure exactly how mad that was, by asking players to rate their anger on a scale of one to seven in reaction to various scenarios. When players were confronted with a free-rider, almost everyone put themselves at the upper end of the anger scale. Fehr and Gachter describe these emotions as a “proximate mechanism”. This means that evolution has built into the human mind a hatred of free-riders and cheaters, which activates anger when we confront people acting like this – and it is this anger which prompts altruistic punishment. In this way, the emotion is evolution’s way of getting us to overcome our short-term self-interest and encourage collective social life.

So now we can see why there is an evolutionary pressure pushing motorists towards hatred of cyclists. Deep within the human psyche, fostered there because it helps us co-ordinate with strangers and so build the global society that is a hallmark of our species, is an anger at people who break the rules, who take the benefits without contributing to the cost. And cyclists trigger this anger when they use the roads but don’t follow the same rules as cars.

Now cyclists reading this might think “but the rules aren’t made for us – we’re more vulnerable, discriminated against, we shouldn’t have to follow the rules.” Perhaps true, but irrelevant when other road-users see you breaking rules they have to keep. Maybe the solution is to educate drivers that cyclists are playing an important role in a wider game of reducing traffic and pollution. Or maybe we should just all take it out on a more important class of free-riders, the tax-dodgers.

Khat out of the bag

Finding myself at a loose end yesterday I decided I’d try and track down one of London’s mafrishes – a type of cafe where people from the capital’s Ethiopian, Somali and Yemeni community chew the psychoactive plant khat.

I’d heard about a Somali cafe on Lewisham Way and thought that was as good a place as any to try. The cafe owner first looked a bit baffled when I walked in and asked about khat but he sat me down, gave me tea, and went out back to ask his associates.

“Sorry, there’s no khat in Lewishman. We have internet?” he suggested while gesturing towards the empty computers at the back. I kindly declined but in reply he suggested I go to Streatham. “There are lots of restaurants there”, he assured me.

Streatham is huge, so I arrived at one of the rail stations and just decided to walk south. Slowly I became aware that there were more Somali-looking faces around but there were no cafes to be seen.

Just through chance I noticed some Somali cafes off a side street and walked into the first one I saw. “There’s none here, but next door”, I was told. The people in the next cafe said the same, as did the next, and the next, until I came to an unmarked door.

“Just go in” a cafe owner called to me from across the street, so I walked in.

The place was little dark but quite spacious. My fantasies of an East African cafe translocated to London quickly faded as my eyes adjusted to the trucker’s cafe decor. Inside, there were four guys watching the news on a wall-mounted TV.

The cafe owner greeted me as I entered. I asked my usual question about khat and he looked at me, a little puzzled.

“You know, khat, to chew?” I ventured. A furrowed brow. Thinking. “Oh, chat. Yes, we have bundles for three pounds and bundles for seven. Which do you want?”

“Give me one for seven” I said. “No problem” he replied cheerily. “Have a seat”.

This wasn’t the first time I had tried khat. Many years ago, when I was an undergraduate in the Midlands, I discovered khat in an alternative shop. It was sold as a natural curative soul lifting wonder plant from the fields of Africa.

I bought some, didn’t really know what to do with it, and just began to ‘gently chew’, as the leaflet advised, while walking through the streets of Nottingham.

So when my bundle of khat arrived, I just picked out some stems and began chomping on one end. “Wait, wait, stop!” they shouted in unison. “We’ll help you” said one and I was joined by the cafe owner and a friend. “Anyway, he said”, “you’re not allowed chew alone, it’s a social thing.”

I was given a bin to put beside my table, was shown how to strip off the stems and pick out the soft parts, and how to chew slowly. I was provided tea and water on the house and told to keep drinking fluids. Apparently, it can be a little strong on the stomach and the plant makes you go to the toilet a lot as, I was told, ‘it speeds up the body’.

I had the company of the cafe owner, a Somali Muslim, and his friend, an Ethiopian Christian.

Over the next two hours we chewed and talked. Ethiopian politics, football, living in another country, khat in Somalia, Haile Selassie, religion, languages, Mo Farah, stereotypes of Africa and family life in London.

People strolled in an out of the cafe. Some in jeans and t-shirt, others looking like they’d just walked in from the Somali desert. Everyone shook my hand. Some bought khat and left, others joined us, all the while chewing gently and drinking sweet tea. At one point I asked the Christian guy why he wore an Islamic cap. He whipped off his hat. “I’m bald” he said “and it’s the only cap you can wear inside” which sent me into fits of laughter.

Khat itself has a very tannin taste and it is exactly like you’d imagine how chewing on an indigestible bush would be. It’s bitty and it fills your mouth with green gunk. The sweet tea is there for a reason.

The effect of the khat came on gently but slowly intensified. It’s stimulating like coffee but is slightly more pleasurable. There’s no jitteriness.

It reminded me of the coca plant from South America both in its ‘mouth full of tree’ chewing experience and its persistent background stimulation. But while coca gave me caffeine-like focus that always turned into a feeling of anxiety, khat was gently euphoric.

My companions told me that it lifts the spirits and makes you talkative. They had a word, which for the life of me I can’t remember, which describes the point at which it ‘opens your mind’ to new ideas and debate.

The active ingredient in khat is cathinone which has become infamous as the basis of ‘bath salts’ legal highs which chemists have learnt to create synthetically and modify. But like coca, from which cocaine is made, the plant is not mental nitroglycerine. It has noticeable effects but they don’t dominate the psyche. It’s a lift rather than a launch.

The guys in the cafe were not unaware of its downsides though. “Don’t chew too often” they told me “it can become a habit for some”. I was also told it can have idiosyncratic effects on sexual performance. Some find it helps, others not so much.

Not everyone was there for khat. Some guys chewed regularly, some not at all, some had given up, some only on special occasions. Some just came to hang out, drink tea and watch the box.

Towards the end when I felt we had got to know each other a bit better I asked why the cafe was unmarked. The owner told me that while khat is legal they were aware of the scare stories and were worried about the backlash from less enlightened members of the community. ‘Immigrants sell foreign drug’ shifts more papers, it seems, than ‘guys chew leaves and watch football’.

Eventually, I said my goodbyes and decided I could use my buzz to go for a walk. I made London Bridge in a couple of hours. But I think my newfound energy came as much from the welcome as it did from the khat.

Link to Wikipedia entry on khat.

2013-02-14 Spike activity

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

“Ever since I learnt about confirmation bias I’ve started seeing it everywhere”. Genius line from a Jon Ronson blog post.

The Dana Foundation research showing the genetic risk for psychiatric conditions can be seen early in development.

The fantastic Neuroskeptic blog has moved to Discover Magazine. Update your bookmarks!

Kurzweil AI reports on the latest generation of AI robots with intelligence developed by genetics algorithms. Check the creepy video. To the bunkers!

The Independent has a piece on why our memories are not always our own.

Micro hallucinations in the film Black Swan discovered by Cinematic Corner. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.

The New York Times has an obituary for a little known industrial psychologist who has had a massive impact on our lives – he designed the telephone dialler.

New study finds that violence on YouTube is less common and less glamorised than on TV. Kittens also cuter, bases belong more to us.

The Atlantic covers the possibility of deep brain stimulation for Alzheimer’s disease.

“Embodied cognition is not what you think it is” An article in Frontiers in Cognitive Science on radical embodied cognition.

The Atlantic argues that economists need a council of psychological advisers to help with the ‘human being’ thing.

Will We Ever… Simulate the Brain? Not Exactly Rocket Science covers the billion euro attempt to not quite simulate the brain.

The Times Literary Supplement has a review of Oliver Sacks’ new book ‘Hallucinations’ by street-fighting Ray Tallis.

An online sickness

The first academic review article on ‘Munchausen by Internet‘ – where people fake the identity of an ill person online – has just been published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

Munchausen syndrome is a common name for facticious disorder where people consciously fake illnesses for their own gain.

This is distinguished from malingering – where the gain would be something obvious like money, drugs or missing military service – and instead the gain from factitious illness typically includes the indirect benefits of faking – like being cared for, avoiding family conflict and so on.

The person is deliberately faking but they may not be fully conscious of all the emotional benefits – they might just say ‘it feels right’ or ‘it helps me’.

Obviously, this has been a problem for millennia but there has been an increasing recognition that the phenomenon happens online. People take up the identity of someone with an illness that gives them a special place in an online community.

This could be a standard online community where their ‘illness’ becomes a point of social concern, or their pretence could allow them to participate in an online community for people with certain disorders or conditions.

The article gives lots of example and some ways of spotting Munchausen fakers that also gives an insight into their thinking:

  • Posts consistently duplicating material in other posts, books, or health-related websites.
  • Characteristics of the supposed illness emerging as caricatures.
  • Near-fatal bouts of illness alternating with miraculous recoveries.
  • Fantastical claims, contradicted by subsequent posts, or flatly disproved.
  • Continual dramatic events in the person’s life, especially when other group members have become the focus of attention.
  • Feigned blitheness about crises that will predictably attract immediate attention.
  • Others apparently posting on behalf of the individual having identical patterns of writing.

  • The piece gets quite wordy at times (well, it is an academic article) but it’s an interesting insight into a motivations of people who ‘fake sick’ on the internet.

    Link to full text of article.

    Synthetic highs are mutating

    A new study on the chemicals in the latest batch of legally sold ‘synthetic highs’ has found what looks like an unintended hybrid drug.

    As regular Mind Hacks readers will know, I’m a keen watcher of the murky ‘legal high’ market.

    We seem to be in the unprecedented position where sophisticated grey-market pharmacologists are rapidly inventing completely new-to-science drugs in underground labs for thrill-seeking punters.

    These synthetic drugs have typically come in two types: ‘fake pot’ – made from synthetic cannabinoids and stimulants, usually derived from cathinone.

    A study just published in Forensic Science International looked at the chemicals in a new wave of ‘fake pot’ herbal highs sold over the internet.

    Firstly, the research identified 12 new synthetic cannabinoids. That’s twelve completely new untested cannabis-like drugs. The turnover in the market is both stunning and scary.

    Curiously though, one ‘legal pot’ sample contained both a new synthetic cannabinoid (identified as URB-754) and a cathinone (4-Me-MABP) in it.

    What was most surprising though, was that these substances had chemically reacted with one another to create a completely new combination drug. It has the chemical name (N,5-dimethyl-N-(1-oxo-1-(p-tolyl)butan-2-yl)-2-(N′-(p-tolyl)ureido)benzamide) if you want to sound sexy.

    In other words, while the makers intended to put both a cannabinoid and a stimulant in the same product, they probably never knew that the substances had chemically combined to produce a hybrid compound with completely unknown properties.

    The legal high market is becoming an informal opt-in drug-testing experiment with paying subjects.

    Link to locked study.

    Hallucinations of the inner body

    One of the least understood symptoms in psychosis are hallucinations called cenesthesias. These are ‘inner body’ feelings that often don’t correspond to any known or even possible bodily experiences.

    A team from Japan has just published a study of patients who experience cenesthesias in the mouth. Here are a selection of the hallucinations:

    “Feels like gas is blowing up in his mouth”, “feels like something is struggling, as if there is an animal in his mouth”

    “Feels the presence of wires in the mandibular incisors [front teeth in the jaw] when removing dentures”

    “Feels something sticky coming up rapidly in her mouth”, “feels like a membrane is covering and squeezing her incisors”

    “Feels like trash is coming up behind her dentures”, “feels sliminess in her mouth”

    “Feels slimy saliva”, “feels like her teeth are made of iron and is sore from chewing”

    The study used a type of brain scanning called SPECT (essentially, injecting your brain with radioactive glucose, seeing where it ends up with a gamma camera) to look at the balance of activity over the two hemispheres when the patients were just resting.

    They found that activity was relatively greater in the right hemisphere, which is a common, but not very reliable finding in psychosis research.

    Link to locked study.