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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
IN CONNECTION WITH A SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY FIELD EXERCISE,
COLLEGE STUDENTS MONITORED THEIR OWN DRIVING BEHAVIOR AND THEIR PERCEPTIONS OF OTHER
DRIVERS. WHILE DRIVING ON THEIR DAILY ROUTE, THEY DICTATED INTO A TAPE RECORDER THEIR
SELF-WITNESSING REPORT ON THEIR OWN DRIVING BEHAVIOR IN THREE PRE-DEFINED AREAS OF THE
SELF: AFFECTIVE (FEELINGS AND MOTIVES), COGNITIVE (INTERPRETATIONS AND DECISIONS), AND
SENSORIMOTOR (SENSATIONS, PERCEPTIONS, VERBALIZATIONS). CONTENT ANALYSIS OF THESE REPORTS
INDICATES THE PRESENCE OF A PATHOGENIC-LIKE SYNDROME IN THE MENTAL HEALTH OF THE ORDINARY
DRIVER. THIS INCLUDES MOTIVATIONAL OR EMOTIONAL DISTURBANCES, COGNITIVE MISATTRIBUTIONS OR
IRRATIONALITIES, AND SENSORIMOTOR DISCOORDINATIONS, IMPULSIVE ACTIONS AND ABUSIVE
VERBALIZATIONS. A THEORY OF DRIVING BEHAVIOR IS SKETCHED OUT SPECIFYING THE DEVELOPMENTAL
STAGES OF BECOMING A MATURE DRIVER. THE SELF-WITNESSING METHOD IS PROPOSED FOR FUTURE
RESEARCH INVOLVING BASELINE-INTERVENTION TECHNIQUE WITH RANDOM ASSIGNMENT OF SUBJECTS TO
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 STUDY OF INNER ACTIVITIES
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
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
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
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 et.al., 1964;
Jakobovits and Nahl-Jakobovits, in press). Examples will be given to indicate the scope
and method of this approach.
THE DRIVER'S THREEFOLD SELF
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
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
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
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
"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
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
THE MENTAL HEALTH OF DRIVERS
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
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
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
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
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
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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Bloom, B.S. and Broder, L.J. The Problem Solving Processes of College
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Ericsson, K.A. and Simon, H.A. Protocol Analysis: Verbal Reports as Data.
Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press; 1984.
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Driver Behavior as Skills and Errors in Three Behavioral Domains
|I've got to be careful here. Don't want to cut anybody
||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
||(Yelling:) "You stupid idiot, why don't you watch
where you're going!"
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