There's a particular kind of narcissism that afflicts some people when they start up the car.
Driven to despair by the overinflated egos of ‘carcissists’
Mental health problems and quirks of personality have many manifestations and driving is a great example. There are drivers who appear to experience a form of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) when they get behind the wheel. Inattentively, they hurtle along the road at 140 kph, impulsively reading text messages as they go. However, even more dangerous, and more common than vehicular ADHD, is a pervasive disorder I have termed “carcissism”.
Carcissism, just like narcissism, involves an overinflated sense of self-worth. In narcissism, the exaggerated self-worth tends to be broadly generalised. However, in carcissism, the exaggerated, yet fragile, sense of self-worth is almost solely and inextricably bound up with one’s car.
Classic symptoms of carcissism include an overdeveloped sense of entitlement (the carcissist always believes he has the right-of-way) along with a delusional overconfidence in one’s driving ability. For the carcissist, accidents happen only to other, less gifted drivers. Of course, this grandiosity is occasionally challenged, but even if a carcissist ostensibly accepts responsibility for a fender bender, deep within his own heart he is never truly at fault.
The carcissist is deeply self-centred and self-absorbed, and he (occasionally she) will typically neglect to use the car’s indicators or hazard lights. Such devices, after all, are for the benefit of other motorists. In extreme cases, the carcissist’s egocentrism is so profound, he truly believes that other drivers somehow know his intentions.
With his false sense of invincibility, the carcissist will often drive recklessly and believe that other road users admire his exceptional driving skills. He will often misinterpret the outrage and disbelief expressed on the faces of other drivers as envy.
Occasionally, and I emphasise the word occasionally, the carcissist will allow pedestrians the right-of-way.
But as he waves them on with an unmistakable air of superiority and disdain, he imagines his pedestrian benefactors owe him a huge debt of gratitude. But even this seeming act of humility is, more often than not, just a sham; a thinly veiled attempt to gain much-craved attention – a few revs of the turbocharged engine as the pedestrians pass by usually does the trick.
As is the case with the narcissist, the carcissist lacks empathy.
The carcissist cannot imagine that the people observing his dangerous driving antics might have recently lost loved ones in road traffic accidents. The carcissist is blissfully oblivious to the psychological pain he inflicts, and after all, other people don’t matter.
Of course, we all know a carcissists or two; they are incredibly easy to spot. The problem, however, lies in being able to see one’s own carcissistic tendencies. We are all quick to complain about the traffic, without ever really appreciating that we are the traffic. The antidote to carcissism – as with narcissism – is compassion and empathy, qualities that can be cultivated with effort.
Reducing the societal levels of carcissism would be a great social goal. Not only would we reduce road traffic accidents, but we would also reduce the burden of the many other illnesses associated with stress (including heart disease, diabetes and depression).
Numerous international studies have reported that traffic and thoughtless drivers are among the most frequent and weighty contributors to our stress levels.
In a recent research project, my Zayed University colleagues and I explored the links between daily life stress in the UAE, and the symptoms of depression and anxiety.
As part of the study we developed a list of 34 common daily life stressors; some fairly general items and some more specifically associated with life in the UAE.
The list included things like noise from construction, family arguments, and slow or malfunctioning technology. In all, more than 1,000 residents of the UAE completed our “UAE Daily Life Stress Scale”.
What was the number one stress point from that list? What was the item identified as the greatest source of daily stress by men and women, expats and nationals? Yes, “thoughtless and inconsiderate drivers”.
Furthermore, the study also found that higher levels of daily life stress were associated with elevated depression and anxiety symptoms. Carcissists it seems, literally have the ability to drive us to despair.
Justin Thomas, an associate professor at Zayed University, is the author of Psychological Well-Being in the Gulf States: The New Arabia Felix