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Data on the Private World
of the Driver in Traffic:
Affective, Cognitive, and Sensorimotor

Dr. Leon James
Department of Psychology
University of Hawaii

(c) 1984




Two types of driver behavior models have been advanced, those involving input-output relations and those involving internal states (Michon, 1985). Input-output models use taxonomies or inventories based on task analyses, as well as functional control models of a mechanistic nature. Internal state models use trait analyses of drivers and their motivational-cognitive context. Michon (1985, p. 490) considers the input-output models as "behavioral" while the internal states models are termed "psychological." This paper attempts to show that the internal state models are also to be considered behavioral. It is argued that the real contrast in driver behavior models is external-behavioral vs. internal-behavioral. Inventories of driver tasks have so far been based on external or public observation and description of driving performance (McKnight and Adams, 1970; Quenault, 1967). A way of obtaining internal behavioral or private data will be presented in what follows.


The field of psychology has evolved a great deal since the days at the beginning of the century when the voice of Watson championed a radical behaviorism that was to exclude the study of inner activities such as thinking and feeling (Watson, 1924). Skinner's more moderate approach included the serious attempt to give a behavioral analysis of speech, its grammatical system, and its sub-vocal verbalizations identified with the activity of thinking (Skinner, 1957). Since then, the earlier work of Russian psychologists Vygotsky (1962) and Luria (1961) on the control functions of inner speech has received widespread attention and acceptance among behaviorists, neo-behaviorists, and cognitivists. Staats (1975) has worked out functional-behavioral theories of inner activities that cover what is ordinarily called thinking and feeling.

Educators and test makers have long used the thinking out loud verbalizations of college students to study their problem solving abilities (Bloom and Broder, 1950). More recently, Meichenbaum and Goodman (1979) and Watson and Tharp (1985) have made use of silent verbalizations in the form of self-regulatory sentences that mediate and control the overt performance of students and clients in need of greater self-control of their behavior in many areas. Abelson (1981) has proposed script analysis as a method of reconstructing the cognitive activities that underlie routine behaviors such as ordering food in a restaurant. Ericsson and Simon (1984) have described their extensive attempts in protocol analysis which involves the tape recording of a subject's thinking aloud routine while engaged in problem solving activity of specific tasks (e.g., solving a chess problem).
See Arashiro's comment on her inner conversations
These research and clinical efforts represent significant advances in the scientific study of the private world of individuals. The self-witnessing technique introduced in their paper is an attempt to obtain reliable data on the ongoing events in the private world of drivers. This psychological aspect of driving has not received attention in the extensive literature of driving or auto safety. The method was previously used in the analysis of written reports of students on their library research (Nahl-Jakobovits and Jakobovits, in press).


Drivers readily discuss many aspects of their driving behavior. For example, when students in an introductory college course in social psychology were asked to write an introduction about themselves as drivers, they spontaneously mentioned various aspects about themselves such as the following: How long I've been driving; what kind of cars I can drive (gear shift or automatic); how driving affects my everyday life (its costs, dangers, frustrations, stress); what images I project as a driver (power, status, lifestyle); whether I consider myself to be a good or bad driver; whether I like myself as a driver; how I react to common driving situations; how much control I have over my driving and my emotions; how my mood changes as a result of driving episodes; how aware I am of my driving or of driving conditions; how the traffic went on a particular trip; my driving record (traffic tickets, accidents, near misses); and some others. These are thus dimensions of discrimination along which drivers spontaneously monitor themselves, or have the conviction that they monitor themselves. We may call these beliefs one's self-image as a driver.
Interviews with drivers, or written self-assessment scales filled out by drivers, are methods for gathering data on driving behavior, but they yield retrospective data in which the respondents' recollection of facts is mixed with their self-image as drivers. By contrast, self-witnessing reports yield data that are not retrospective but on-going: the driver speaks out loud into a tape recorder at the very time the emotions, thoughts, perceptions and actions arise spontaneously and concurrently with the act of driving. Later transcriptions of the tape allow us to display in concrete and visible terms the overt expressions of feelings, thoughts, and perceptions that accompanied a particular driving episode.
This method does not claim to obtain a complete and accurate record of the driver's inner reactions, but rather a sample of these. To insure the adequacy of this sample, undergraduate students were given practice in how to make self-witnessing reports in three distinct areas of inner human behavior: affective, cognitive, and sensorimotor. These three were chosen because of their theoretical and practical importance in psychology as well as in common sense. Among Western writers this threefold aspect of the human individual goes back to Aristotle, and in more modern times, it is explicitly elaborated by Swedenborg (1743) as the voluntary (my affections), the intellectual (my cognitions), and the sensory (my sensations). Previous research has shown that they cover a wide variety of an individual's overt and private life (Bloom, 1956; Krathwohl, 1964; Jakobovits and Nahl-Jakobovits, in press). Examples will be given to indicate the scope and method of this approach.


In its modern version, behaviorism is committed to a unified theory that tries to deal with external and internal aspects of the self (Staats, 1981; Mischel, 1973). For instance, the concept of personality is defined in terms of built-up repertoires of basic habits. These are actually skills and errors that can be modified through further learning. This acquisition process is going on in three distinct domains of the person: affective, cognitive, and sensorimotor (or perceptual-motor). Figure 1 depicts the inter-relationship between these three aspects of driver behavior as a nested structure. All skills at any level of expertise contain affective, cognitive, and sensorimotor features. An illustration is presented in Table 1 based on self-witnessing reports by drivers. Though the recording of the report is necessarily sequential in that the driver focuses separately on each domain, in actuality the model assumes that all three are going on simultaneously.
See Isa's comments on this.

The Driver's Affective Self

In the following data segment tape recorded by a student, several dimensions of affect are discernible in this person's experience during a routine driving episode:
"Oh, no, there's a police car coming up from behind. I hope he didn't see me driving fast. Besides, I'm not the only one who is driving fast. If he pulls me over to the side, he has to pull everyone else over too. I'll be so embarrassed if he pulls me over. Everyone will know that I was breaking the law."
Content analysis focuses on the "speech act" value of the components of verbalizations (Searle, 1969; Jakobovits and Gordon, 1974). For instance, "Oh, no" marks an affective stricture or a perception of doom; it indexes an emotional flooding-out. "I hope" marks a religious affection or an idealized picture of reality. "Besides, I'm not the only one" bespeaks guilt and self-justification; it raises the specter of personal catastrophe expressed in "I'll be so embarrassed... Everyone will know..." A little later this subject displays affections of condemnation or disapproval when another car cut in front: "Careless and pushy drivers always do things like that." In another episode, this person expresses anxiety and fear: "I almost sideswiped a car which had been traveling in my blind spot. As I was turning back into the middle lane I was in a state of mild anxiety. Thinking about what could've happened made me scared." Thus, expressing fear in a driving incident or showing disapproval of another driver are instances of affective driving behavior.

The Driver's Cognitive Self

Data regarding this individual's cognitive driving behavior are obtained from the following entry that was recorded for the same episode:
"I should cut down on how fast I'm driving and maintain the required speed limit. I am in the middle lane and yet I am driving like an aggressive person in the left lane. I could be increasing my chance of becoming a victim on the road. If the police pulls me over and gives me a ticket it's nobody else's fault but my own. I should follow the rules. I don't want others to get a bad impression of me and think that I'm a speed demon."
Reasoning about propriety is evident in "I should maintain the proper speed limit" and "I'm driving like an aggressive person" which also indicates self-evaluation ("aggressive"). Propriety as well as morality is involved in the driver's reasonings regarding the self-attribution of error. ("It's nobody else's fault but my own"), and the entry "I don't want others to get a bad impression of me" reveals this person's image management techniques. In the following entry the driver seems to be overwhelmed with the reasoned consequences of his action:
"I am thinking to myself I could have killed the guy back there. I am so careless. He must be swearing at me and saying what an idiot I am. I could have smashed up my brother's car."
Note that this self-analysis includes imagining what the others are thinking, feeling, or saying ("He must be swearing..."). Thus, reasoning about a driving situation or attributing an error to oneself are instances of cognitive driving behavior.

The Driver's Sensorimotor Self

For this segment of the record, the driver spoke of the following in connection with the same episode:
"I'll driver at the required speed limit and get to my destination safely. I am leaning slightly forward in my seat rather than my normal slightly reclined position. I have both hands on the steering wheel rather than my normal one [hand]. And I can feel my temperature rising."
Here the person is giving some details on motor behavior and the sensation of getting warmer. Some of this information might be available to an observer of camera ("I am leaning slightly forward in my seat"), but the meaning of this act would remain obscure without the self-witnessing report ("rather than my normal slightly reclined position") or would require complex instrumentation ("I can feel my temperature rising"). Thus, describing sensations or motor actions are instances of sensorimotor driving behavior.


Self-witnessing reports of one's private or subjective world as a driver reveals an agitated world replete with extreme emotions and impulses triggered by little acts. Ordinary drivers can display maniacal thoughts, violent feelings, virulent speech, and physiological signs of high stress. One driver's transcript shows the following entry for the three domains in connection with a particular indecent:
"My affective behavior is scared, anxious, fearful, panic stricken, agitated, bothered, irritated, annoyed, angry, mad. I feel like yelling and hitting. My cognitive behavior is thinking, Oh, no what is he doing. What's happening. How could he do that. The guy was speeding. My sensorimotor behavior is that I hear myself saying out loud, S--t! Stupid guy! I'm breathing fast, gripping the wheel, perspiring, sitting up straight and slightly forward, my eyes are open and watching straight ahead."
This incident involved a car cutting into the lane and forcing the car immediately ahead to slam on the brakes causing a chain reaction; however, no collision occurred. The self-witnessing reports of the students reveal that each driving trip to campus (average: less than one hour) is full of incidents of this sort in which near misses occur. Hence it has become normal and usual for them to experience stress and panic under everyday driving conditions. Here is another example:
"Affectively I am angry, upset, very frustrated, revenge seeking, flustered. Cognitively I am thinking, Why can't you wait and cut after me? No one is behind me, you idiot. No, Jolyn, you shouldn't follow too closely, he might make a sudden stop. Good, let me hit him. Why am I upset? What is making me feel this way? What's wrong? Gotta calm down. Do something with my hands. Figure out what's bothering me. Sensorimotor-wise I detect heavy breathing, impulsive reckless movements. Increased pulse. Shaking. Short of breath. Hot. Flushed."
This person later added the following written annotation on the transcript: "I just got to work. Traffic was terrible and I had a hard time parking. This made me late. I was rushing around all flustered, but the bar was so empty. I felt aroused, shaken up, but I could not find the cause. After a while someone asked, "What's wrong?" I look around; it couldn't'[t be anything in the bar. The bar was empty. After thinking a while I came to realize that my driving had put me in a state of arousal."
Self-witnessing reports reveal that driving episodes can act as mood changers. Some are instantaneous and extreme, lasting but a few seconds; others affect the mood of the person for hours after the incident. The following is a summary of the types of negative reactions frequently mentioned by the witnesses:

Extreme Physiological Reactions: heart pounding, stopping breathing, muscle spasms, stomach cramps, wet hands, pallor, faintness, trembling, nausea, discoordination, inhibition, visual fixation, facial distortion, back pain, neck cramp.
Extreme Emotional Reactions: outbursts of anger, yelling, aggressive gestures, looking mean and glaring, threatening with dangerous vehicle manipulation, fantasies of violence and revenge against other drivers, panic, incapacitation, distortion, regressive rigid pattern of behavior, fear, anxiety, delusional talk against non-present drivers and objects.
See Isa's testimonial.
Extreme Irrational Thought Sequences: paranoic thinking that one is being followed or inspected, talking out loud to other drivers who are not within ear shot, script writing scenarios involving vengeance and cruelty against "guilty" drivers, denial of reality and defensiveness when a passenger complains of a driver's error, psychopathic interactions as when two drivers alternately tailgate each other dangerously at high speed.
These findings raise an important public issue: What is the mental health of the more than one hundred million licensed drivers in this country? Research with the self-witnessing method is needed to assess the generality of these preliminary findings with college students. We need to map out the behavior of drivers under varying social and psychological conditions so as to arrive at a comprehensive theory of driving behavior.


Self-witnessing reports by drivers reveal that driving behavior is a complex entity occurring simultaneously within three conscious behavioral areas of the individual: affective, cognitive, and sensorimotor. Content analysis of the reports shows the driver to be involved in the effort to comply to rules (e.g., traffic signs), norms (e.g., don't follow too closely), and roles of driving behavior (e.g., I'm a bully, or I'm a polite driver). In this struggle to comply, three aspects of the driver's inner world are prominent: compliance in relation to the driver's feelings (affective compliance), compliance in relation to the driver's thoughts (cognitive compliance), and compliance in relation to the driver's sensory and motor responses, such as, sensations, perceptions, motor acts, and overt verbalizations (sensorimotor compliance). These three domains of compliance constitute the driver's threefold self. Growth, maturity, or expertise as a driver will be a function of the driver's threefold self.

The struggle for affective compliance involves the driver's motivation, character, and conscience; it is a matter of the driver's good will or bad will. Affective non-compliance to driving rules, norms, and roles engenders driving behaviors that are irresponsible, dangerous, callous, brutish, and imaginatively full of violence, bullying, and domineering attitudes or intentions. The struggle for cognitive compliance involves the driver's rationality and understanding. Cognitive non-compliance to rules, norms, and roles engenders behaviors that are irrational, unsafe, rude, petty and full of self-serving explanations and attribution errors. Sensorimotor compliance involves the driver's performance efficiency, sensory awareness, and overt verbalizations. Sensorimotor non-compliance engenders erratic and discoordinated vehicle operation that increases the potential for accidents; it also allows the driver to be rude and opportunistic.
Future research might explore the psychological mechanisms that mediate affective, cognitive, and sensorimotor compliance in driving behavior by applying to this area what social psychologists have found in other areas of behavior. For example, Kelman (1958) studied the conditions under which people's opinions and attitudes are influenced by the actions of others. To account for his data he theorized three levels of depth in the social influencing process: (1) obedience, or external compliance; (2) identification, or compliance by conformity to others; (3) internalization, or internal compliance (that is, by free choice).

Applying this model to driving behavior, we can theorize that the driver must go through three stages of internalization in order to become a fully mature and safe driver. Stage 1 may be called Driving Obedience and involves the learning of external compliance in the affective, cognitive and sensorimotor domains. Stage 2 may be called Driving Identification and involves learning to conform to appropriate norms of driving such as politeness, fairness, and rationality. Stage 3 may be called Driving Internalization and involves the learning of altruistic concerns for other highway users and taking responsibility for their safety and comfort.
We can then look upon the driver as possessing a threefold self: (1) the affective driving self, (2) the cognitive driving self, and (3) the sensorimotor driving self. The content and interaction of these three aspects of the driver's private world will determine the overt, public aspects of the driver: vehicle maneuvering, cautiousness, safety record, skill, knowledge, awareness, and so on.


The self-witnessing technique is well suited for investigating the psychological mechanisms that mediate driving style. For instance, analysis of self-witnessing reports can reveal the factors that influence driving obedience or disobedience to signs and regulations. According to Kelman (1958) external compliance is mediated by externally applied reinforcement such as reward for obedience and punishment for disobedience. The self-witnessing reports of some drivers reveal a preoccupation with 'watching out for cops' and so-called "speed traps," indicating that obedience to the speed limit is conditioned to external threat (Stage 1 compliance). One can hypothesize that a deeper stage of compliance could be achieved through indentification with other highway users. This would require switching 'locus of control' of one's driving speed from external threat to a more internal source. For example, the driver might stay within the speed limit out of empathy (or sympathy for the comfort of other highway users), equity (or fair-mindedness in exchanges with other drivers), and rationality (or objectivity in analyzing a driving incident).
Evidence of this second stage of driving compliance (Stage 2 Compliance) emerge in the self-witnessing reports as speech acts that reflect concern about the safety, rights, and comfort of other drivers (e.g., "I better not follow so close. Don't want to intimidate that driver."). The person may also express agreement with attitude items such as: other drivers have rights; we must all be fair to one another; objectivity in dealing with driving exchanges is safer and more pleasant in the long run; and so on (Stage 2 Compliance).
Even further levels of internalization are theoretically possible as shown by the work of Kohlberg (1976) on moral reasoning. Applying this approach to driving behavior, we can expect expressions of mutual concern, altruism, and religious values in connection with one's driving experiences. Some of the self-witnessing reports reveal a sense of responsibility in driving which stems from the driver's conscience and horror of injuring others, either physically or mentally (e.g., "I felt guilty for cutting in on that driver. They must have been real scared not knowing whether I was going to hit them or not" or "I keep thinking how closely I came to hit that man a while back. To think that I could be the cause of someone's death or injury is real scary to me...").


Future research may investigate the conditions which foster the greater internalization of compliance in driving behavior. This may be done by having drivers give self-witnessing reports under various independently manipulated situations, such as: driving in the right lane vs. the left lane; driving to work regularly (going with the traffic) vs. by watching the speedometer and staying within posted speed limits; driving alone vs. driving with one or more friends; driving in heavy traffic vs. light traffic; driving while in a hurry after a quarrel with someone; and so on. These independently manipulated experiential contrasts will reveal how a driver's feelings, thoughts, perceptions, verbalizations, and actions (the dependent variables) are influenced by highway conditions such as traffic density, or by mental states such as feeling pressured or happy (the independent conditions). Staats (1981, p. 245) has explicitly recognized the possibility of designing experiments in which affective and cognitive states are manipulated as independent variables to study their effects on other cognitive-affective behaviors as dependent variables.
In a pilot project, students did a field project in which the intervention )or independent manipulation) was to drive within speed limits for one week. The dependent measures were self-witnessing reports in the affective, cognitive, and sensorimotor domains of their driving behavior (threefold self). Several students reported extreme paranoic feelings and thoughts (e.g., "Everybody is giving me the stink eye for holding them up. They are going to attack me, ram me off the road") -- which did not appear in the baseline records while the student were driving regularly (by keeping up with traffic). This type of baseline-intervention design is quite flexible and productive if coupled with random assignment of subjects to predefined conditions to allow for statistical tests of significance.

Finally, the development of a driving theory based on self-witnessing reports will make it possible to construct a classification scheme or taxonomy that can help identify the components of driver behavior from the perspective of the driver's world. Such an inventory may be useful for driver assessment and driver education and can provide norms or expectations of driving skills and errors in the affective, cognitive, and sensorimotor areas of behavior. For instance, a driver's self-witnessing report may be analyzed by counting the presence of affective errors (e.g., "I was so mad I didn't care if I was going to hit him or not!"), cognitive errors (e.g., "I figured there is no speed limit in this parking lot cause I don't remember seeing any speed limit signs here..."), and sensorimotor errors (e.g., "I lowered my window and yelled at him, 'You stupid idiot.'"). A driver's error score can thus be obtained to evaluate the effect of various intervention programs for driver improvement. Or, error patterns may be correlated with demographic or psychological characteristics of drivers (e.g., men vs. women, or various age groups). These types of data may be valuable for efforts in the modeling of driver behavior, especially those involving higher control mechanisms which include motivational and trait related aspects. As Michon (1985, p.488) has argued, driver research should go cognitive (and affective) since human mobility is embedded in a psycho-social environment as well as a technological one. Feelings, thoughts, and perceptions are as much traffic and transportations issues as road conditions and traffic flow.


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Table 1
Driver Behavior as Skills and Errors in Three Behavioral Domains
I've got to be careful here. Don't want to cut anybody off. This person looks like he's in a hurry to get in. I better let him in. (Gesticulating and smiling:)Go ahead. You go first.
I wish I coul give that guy a piece of my mind. I don't think people like that should be allowed on the road. (Yelling:) "You stupid idiot, why don't you watch where you're going!"

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