Why Bikes Make Smart People Say Dumb Things

rage-1587We’re talking about the Fundamental Attribution Error this week, and so when the following link popped up on my Facebook feed, it seemed a nice fit for the class blog.  I’ve stolen the title of this post from here, an interesting read on why it is that pedestrians and drivers seem to get so disproportionately angry at cyclists.  The FAE comes into play, as does our resistance to change and a variety of other interesting psychological tendencies.

Give it a read and see what you think.  Have you ever experienced this, either as a biker or toward those who bike?  Can you think of other, similar examples?  Do you agree with the author that FAE comes into play here?

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12 Responses to Why Bikes Make Smart People Say Dumb Things

  1. Michael Rogalski says:

    I have experienced this more times in my five years of being a motorist than I can even count. My bone to pick with cyclists is largely related to the author’s third concern regarding the interruption of an otherwise smoothly-flowing system. However, the town I live in has sidewalks on nearly every street that are certainly wide enough for cyclists. So, I stand by my frustration because I feel as if these cyclists are needlessly making my day more difficult.

    On the flip side, I have been known to cuss them out and condemn them as people when I am able to speed past. Again, I completely stand by the fact that these cyclists have no business on streets with perfectly good sidewalks and therefore what they are doing is dumb to me. However, my transient comments about them being insufferable people are most certainly an example of FAE – even if what these cyclists are doing is dumb in my opinion, I realize now that I need not think of them as dumb people. I now consider that they just made a choice I disliked due to external variables such as the lower frequency of cracks in the road vs. the sidewalk.

    This whole scenario is analogous to a professor who scales up his/her minimum grading scales such that a 93% is a B+ and a 96% is an A- (not to name any names from my Tufts career). There exists a perfectly good standard grading distribution in which students who get a 90% or better will at least receive an A-, but this hypothetical professor makes his/her students’ lives harder rather needlessly. Students may exercise FAE as they exit the class by calling the professor a jerk, but perhaps the professor has pressure from the department to try the new grading distribution or some other situational variable is to blame.

    • Elliad Dagan says:

      From my understanding of your comment, you are encouraging bikes to bike on the sidewalks instead of the street. This I believe would be much more dangerous as they would then be a nuisance to pedestrians. In the article Scott Simon seems to be complaining about just that, those who use the sidewalk instead of the road. Maybe I just can not relate as I have never gotten mad at a biker while driving. From my point of view as drivers we are traveling in big metal boxes while the bikers are only trying to get where they are going in one piece. This could be exposure bias on my part though as I have been the scared biker many more times than I have been the angry driver. I also know several people who have been in bike accidents and luckily been ok, but I have never been concerned for the driver in those cases.

      • Profile photo of Alison Hoi Alison Hoi says:

        As someone who both bikes and drives fairly frequently around the Boston area, I can empathize with both sides of this discussion. But first, it’s important for drivers to recognize that bikers have rights, including the right to bike on the road — not just the shoulder. Of course, bikers are also obliged to follow the rules of the road, like stopping at lights and allowing pedestrians to cross, and while some irresponsible bikers choose not to do this, they are not representative of the thousands who bike as their primary form of commute. Perhaps this is a case of the availability heuristic.
        Another note is that drivers may find bikers an annoyance, but drivers have to keep in mind the enormous danger in cyclists unconditionally yielding to drivers. An example of this is the Boston Ave stretch by Dowling (which was recently paved, thank god). The shoulder of the road was riddled with potholes that could easily flip an unwitting biker. As such, whenever I biked there, I would signal that I was entering the middle of the cleanly paved lane to the cars behind me. Numerous times I have had cars cut me off and fly past me, creating dangerous situations for both parties. From the driver’s perspective, I was slowing down the flow of traffic; but from mine, I was simply asserting my right to travel safely.

    • Daniel Dinjian says:

      I think that in addition to FAE, the example of bikers on the road is actually very closely related to the example of behaving differently with other drivers. Like Louis CK said before, we can say really terrible things about other drivers when we’re in cars, and the same thing applies to bikers. Being in a metal box, hurtling down a road at breakneck speed is enough to spike adrenaline and put anyone on edge, especially inexperienced drivers who are honestly moments from either killing or being killed. One wrong turn, one stupid driver and your car, your life, your money, someone else’s life, all of these things could be lost in the blink of an eye when you’re driving a car. But with bikers, they really have no protection compared to the person driving, so I think that it’s scary to know that when you’re driving around just minding your own business, a stupid biker could come out of nowhere and you could just kill them. Like not on purpose, you turn right, they’re on your right going straight, and that’s it. And being so close to a mistake like that is kind of terrifying, and I feel like it’s enough to make anyone rash. So at least in the way that I understand it, the FAE, describing bikers on the road as terrible people or idiots, is really stemming from a place of fear that the responsibility falls to the driver to watch out for bikers because facing against cars, bikes are pretty much helpless.

      • Zihan Chai says:

        I think the scare the drivers have when they feel they “almost run into that [beep] biker” and the subsequent anger at the bikers as a group is demonstrating exactly how FAE works in real life scenario.
        As both a driver and a biker, it is clear that the roads we have right now are just not built for bikes. In states like Massachusetts, bikers are told to ride in the center of the road. This is not a very good position to be in, as it allows for only a tiny room for maneuver. In some places, bikers are told to “share the road” with pedestrians, which is basically telling the pedestrians to blame the bikers for all their inconvenience. In my experience, it is way scarier to bike rather than to drive under the current conditions.
        The problem is quite clear: we have the wrong road, and we probably have the wrong laws too. It is just illusional to think that bikers, an emerging group, can just peacefully share the road with big, metal boxes moving 5 times as fast. And yet, as mentioned in the article, most people tend to blame the bikers for this public policy failure. Most people think that, somehow, the bikers are responsible for this situation.

  2. Elliad Dagan says:

    From my understanding of the article Carl Aviani is crediting hate to bikers more from assigning the actions of a few to the whole group more than he is referencing the fundamental attribution error, although both play a role. For the majority of the article he discusses the common issue of stereotyping where we will see some bikers running a red light or committing some other traffic violation and then projecting that onto all other bikers we see. This of course is the base of our issues with racism, sexism, any xenophobia really, the combination of the unknown and then substituting the attention grabbing bad information and using that to fill in the cracks.

    There is also the issue of the fundamental attribution error where we get mad at the biker and see their transgressions and assign that one moment to their personality. Drivers will see a biker breaking the law and they will think of the biker as a selfish person with no regard for the law or common decency in society. However, when a biker is breaking the law while biking I doubt they are thinking about how they are breaking the law, and instead just focusing on driving. The anger of drivers or pedestrians at bikers probably comes from the assumption the biker is actively choosing to break the law. As a biker, I can say this is certainly not the case. When I am biking my only goals are to 1. not get hit by a car, and 2. not hit a pedestrian if I am on the sidewalk. I am never thinking about how I am above the law. I could imagine that the fear of being hit by a car would make even someone who is usually a stickler about the law break the law and bike the way they think will be the safest. This is a perfect example of the fundamental attribution error because people will see that person as the opposite of who they see themselves, but for that one moment their fear overrides their natural inclinations.

  3. I feel like you make a really important distinction in your first paragraph when you note that whats at work here is a generalization of a particular judgement of individual bikers onto the entire group. But perhaps within this process, the FDE plays the role of assigning a negative internal characteristic to one biker that is then applied to the internal nature of all bikers. In this way, we completely ignore external factors which would complex or add any amount of nuance to this narrative which paints bikers as somehow internally flawed.

  4. Profile photo of Alison Hoi Alison Hoi says:

    As someone who both bikes and drives frequently around the area, I can empathize with both sides of the discussion. But firstly, it’s important for drivers to recognize that cyclists have certain explicit rights when it comes to biking. Namely, bikers are legally permitted to ride on the road — not just the shoulder, where it is convenient for cars (sidewalk biking often isn’t viable, safe, or even legal, limiting riders to the road). Of course, bikers are also obliged to follow the rules of driving, like stopping at lights; while some bikers choose to disregard these rules, there are thousands of cyclists who do — we just don’t find them notable. Perhaps this is an example of the availability heuristic.

    On a different note, drivers need to be a bit more aware about the inherent danger of riding on a road, and respect a biker’s rights and decisions. An example of this is the stretch of Boston Ave near Dowling, which has (thankfully) been re-paved. The shoulder of the road is riddled with enormous potholes that could easily flip or throw an unwitting biker. As such, when I would ride there I would signal to drivers that I was entering the middle of the lane. Numerous times cars and buses would speed up to cut me off, creating an unnecessarily dangerous situation. From a driver’s perspective, I was creating a (temporary) bottleneck in traffic flow; but from mine, I was simply asserting my right to travel safely.

    • Rachel Lai says:

      I agree that drivers should learn to empathize more with bikers (your second paragraph). It’s easy to speed past a biker on the side of the road when you are comfortably sitting in your car. But it’s important to remember that from the biker’s perspective, he/she is sharing a road with something 5 times as big and many times heavier. Ultimately, everyone is just trying to get to work/school/home/etc., so I think we should all be more considerate toward others on the road and work harder to coexist.

  5. Profile photo of jstone08 jstone08 says:

    I consider myself perfectly bimodal, biking and driving with roughly the exact same quantities each week. I ride about 100 miles a week and drive a bit more than that. I live in Menlo Park, CA close to Facebook HQ.

    I used to work at a bike shop in the downtown area and the bike community was comprised solely of the “spandex elitists”. I was at work one day when we received an anonymous letter stating that the behavior of cyclists in the downtown area was heinous. The diction in the letter was so aggressive and violent that it put my boss on edge. We then had a discussion in the shop about personal experiences with citizens of the town. Almost each employee had a story about he or she was harassed street side. That being said, some of them were guilty of a traffic infraction.

    However, all of the stories had a common theme of the manner of each encounter. Each story described a scolding as if it was a mother reprimanding a son. I remember remarking about how fortunate it was that they were just scoldings and not more representative of motor vehicle road rage type incidents.

    Many years after, while it would be nice to think the motorists and cyclists get along and maybe even marry one another, that could not be further from the truth. I am not sure what it is about my town … maybe the remarkably high number of stop signs, which leads to the high numbers of cyclists (and cars) who roll through said signs, but it does seem that the seemingly minor cycling infractions catch the all knowing citizen eye much better than the more dangerous automobile ones. FAE is certainly at work in this situation and maybe some schemas that were taught from motorist parents to their motorist children about the bad bikers, but we won’t know for sure.

    • I think the action of cyclists may be a result of FAE and more likely due to bikers lack of understanding about what rules they are expected to abide by while riding. I know that for many of my cyclist friends they have trouble knowing exactly what laws they are supposed to obey. I think that it may be possible to generalize to cyclists but not in a way that generally looks down upon cyclists.

  6. Profile photo of tkolbj01 tkolbj01 says:

    Most of the opinions here are pro-embrace the situation & pardon the bikers but as someone whos uncle (a very “safe” biker – always wore a helmet, biked where he was supposed to, overly cautious) was hit and permanently brain damaged and whose father watched a biker run a red light and be hit and killed, I think that there is some justification in blaming the bikers. Yes, they have rights and should be on the road but since they are making the choice to be in the road with cars knowing that they will lose that interaction they should be held more accountable for their own safety. An accident may be the fault of the biker but the consequences don’t just stop with the biker, in the case my dad watched, the biker shot around a blind corner without stopping for the red light and died as a result. The driver was inadvertently responsible for taking the life of this young biker and has to live with that for the rest of his life. In summary, it is not fair by nay means to apply this negativity to all bikers, but those bikers that choose to be unsafe (in my opinion) are showing a little bit of their internal values and cannot be attributed as a whole to FAE.

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