Yesterday I was stuck in traffic behind a huge 4×4 that was belching clouds of noxious fumes, which caused me to wonder about the owner of said vehicle. Having time on my hands I took note of all the things about the back of the truck I was seeing.
It got me wondering just how much we really can surmise about people from the vehicles they drive. I’m reasonably sure that most people are not unlike me in believing that there is much that can be ascertained with some degree of assurance about the general nature and beliefs of our fellow road users.
For instance, if they have a bumper sticker that says Save The Whales, we would tend to think that person must be a member of or at least a contributor to Greenpeace. If they have an NRA sticker, or one of those “they can have my gun when they pry it from my cold dead fingers” stickers, we assume they’re hostile to gun control laws. If they have both we would consider it a dead certainty
However, there are a couple of possibilities that need to be considered before we jump to conclusions. It’s possible, though not likely, that someone put the sticker on the car and the owner is unaware of it (though I have actually known this to happen), or, and this one is not far outside the realm of possibility, they could have bought the car with the sticker on it, don’t really agree with what it says but haven’t had the time or the inclination to remove it. So we could be reaching a false conclusion.
Having given all this some thought I went in search of data on these matters. One thing I found did not surprise me at all. The research of a Colorado State University social psychologist, William Szlemko, found that drivers of cars with bumper stickers, window decals, personalized license plates and other “territorial markers” not only get mad when someone cuts in their lane or is slow to respond to a changed traffic light, but they are far more likely than those who do not personalize their cars to use their vehicles to express rage — by honking, tailgating and other aggressive behavior.
Wow. Something to think about next time you’re out for a drive. That guy in the rolling NRA advertisement just might be packing, and furthermore, he’s apparently more inclined than someone who is packing but doesn’t have stickers to roll down his window and unload on you. These things are good to know. Next time someone like that flips you off, probably best to just smile and keep moving.
However, it’s not just gun nuts you need to be wary of. The study also found that it does not seem to matter whether the messages on the stickers are about peace and love — “Visualize World Peace,” “My Kid Is an Honor Student” — or are angry and in your face — “Don’t Mess With Texas,” “My Kid Beat Up Your Honor Student.” People with bumper stickers are more aggressive no matter what the message they’re sporting.
Bumper stickers are just one visual clue about the owner of the vehicle, though. There’s also rear view mirror ornaments. Ever catch yourself making calls on the nature of the driver based on that? I know I have. Fuzzy dice? Capricious. Pine tree air freshener? Fussy, possibly anal-retentive. Roach clip? well, that one’s obvious. Crystal ball? New ager. If it’s a guy he’s a SNAG. You get the idea. I imagine we often make these snap judgments without giving it any conscious thought.
And then of course there’s personalized plates. Not only are the vehicle owners more likely to be aggressive, according to the study, but I tend to think that what the plate says is a pretty fair indicator of personality type. If the plate is on a muscle car with a huge spoiler and a tail pipe the size of a sewer drain and the plate says NOFTCKS, it doesn’t take much imagination to conclude it’s owned by a testosterone fueled case of arrested development. Of course, his assessment of who he is would differ completely, but you get the idea.
The urge to tell the world who we are through the medium of our homes on wheels is strong in many people. Many of them are probably unaware that they’re advertising to the degree that they are. But next time you head for your car, you want might to think about what it might be saying about you. Or then again, you might just decide you really don’t care. In that case i’d say you’re self confidant and assertive. 🙂