Dan Ariely on Traffic Jam “Altruism”

This from his new advice-column book, Irrationally Yours. Ariely sees the contradiction implicit in our own […]

Ethan Richardson / 5.12.16

This from his new advice-column book, Irrationally Yours. Ariely sees the contradiction implicit in our own self-regard when stuck in traffic, or, you know, everywhere else. As Jesus said, let not the hand steering the wheel know what the hand directing merging vehicles is doing. Or something like that.

Dear Dan, 

Often as I creep along in a traffic jam, someone inevitably tries to enter my lane from the side. Now here is the issue: If I let the car in, I feel good about it. But when I see others in front of me let someone in, I feel cheated, because I’ve been waiting longer than the car entering the lane, and I am upset with the driver who acted kindly at my expense. Any idea why I feel so different about these two situations? 


a1ffca0cbe419415760f6a706700a7caThe issues here are control and credit. When you let someone into your lane, you’re the one making the decision and you’re the one getting the nod or the hand wave as an expression of gratitude. In contrast, when someone is letting the needy car in, you have no control over the decision, and you’re not getting the credit. You only see the downside of this action in the form of an increased delay.

This analysis suggest that your emotional reaction is not just about the other driver. To illustrate this point consider a case where it is not another driver who is doing a favor to a car trying to join your lane. In this imaginary setup you simply keep a large distance between you and the car in front of you. By doing this, you’re allowing the cars from the merging lane to come into your lane at will, but it doesn’t require a separate act of generosity on your part. You don’t even need to slow down to let the car in. My guess is that this version of helping other drivers also wouldn’t feel very satisfying for you, not to mention that you’re not going to get any credit for your passive kindness.

What’s the conclusion? First, it is not about the other kind driver. It is about you! Second, to feel good about the good fortune of someone else, we need to feel that their positive outcome is a result of our own actions. Third, we want other people to recognize how wonderful and helpful we are. 

Still, given how many other people are stuck in traffic ahead of you and the high likelihood that they’ll keep on letting cars merge into your lane, maybe you should start convincing yourself that real altruism consists of allowing good things to happen to strangers both directly and indirectly. And even when someone else gets the credit for it.