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‘Car brain is real’: New study reveals people’s unconscious bias when it comes to driving

Driving, when not done right, could be extremely hazardous to drivers, passengers, and pedestrians. Yet, when people sit down behind the wheel of a car, it seems like they tend to forget all of its harms and risks.

This phenomenon has caught the interest of a team of researchers from Swansea University and the University of the West of England, calling this behavior “car brain” or “motonormativity.”

Coined by Swansea University environmental psychology professor Ian Walker and his team, “motonormativity” refers to the car blindness or the shared cultural blind spot of people that makes them “suspend [their] ethical and moral judgments” when thinking of driving than any other areas of life, such as more socially disapproved behaviors like littering, graffiti, public drunkenness, or street-noise.

Much like the concept of heteronormativity, which is the belief that the only acceptable sexual orientation is heterosexuality or straight, the researchers argued that motonormativity allows people to apply double standards when it comes to behaviors associated with driving, causing them to accept driving-related risks and public health hazards.

To prove whether there is truth to this claim, the researchers attempted to demonstrate it through a recently published study in the journal International Journal of Environment and Health.

“[We said] let’s see if we can measure this; to see if we can do something to show the world that we do have sloppy, strange double standards in this sort of area [driving]; that we do either put cars first or give them a free ride,” Walker said in an interview.

“Let’s just demonstrate the extent to which the population as a whole will make excuses, and will give special freedom to the context of driving,” he added.

Using an independent polling survey, the study involved 1025 male and 1132 female British adults who drove and didn’t drive motor vehicles.

The team constructed five questions about behaviors associated with driving. Then, the same set of questions was also devised with words related to cars and driving replaced with other public concerns, such as drinking, smoking, theft, workplace safety, and food sanitation.

One example of the statement was: “People shouldn’t drive in highly populated areas where other people have to breathe in the car fumes.” They then replaced the word “drive” and “car” with “smoke” and “cigarette,” respectively: “People shouldn’t smoke in highly populated areas where other people have to breathe in the cigarette fumes.”

Another set of examples also asked the participants whether they agree or disagree that if they leave their car unattended and it gets stolen, the police shouldn’t act immediately, whereas its counterpart was: “If somebody leaves their belongings in the street and they get stolen, it’s their own fault for leaving them there and the police shouldn’t be expected to act.”

Half of the participants were asked about the motor-related questions, while the other half were given the non-motor ones.

Interestingly, the result just proved how car brain is “real, measurable, and pervasive.”

For instance, Walker and his team found out that 75% of the participants agreed that people shouldn’t smoke in highly populated places to avoid breathing in the toxic air from the cigarette, while only 17% agreed with its counterpart.

This pattern has been observed in other statements as well, showing how people have an unconscious bias in favor of cars and other behaviors related to them.

“What we demonstrated is an example of the ‘Special Pleading Fallacy’ where certain specific cases get a free ride in thought and discourse,” Walker explained in a tweet thread. “People selectively fail to apply the moral and ethical standards they would use in other contexts.”

Special pleading is a type of fallacy that refers to a person applying rules and standards to other people while making an exemption for themselves.

He added that the findings suggested that car blindness is also present in policymakers and those who are in the public health field.

They also argued in the paper that their study revealed that the problem doesn’t only exist because of the policies surrounding cars and driving, but it’s actually deeply rooted in the culture “ranging from observing their parents’ driving while growing up to mass-media discourses about how it is not only normal but even desirable to 370 drive short distances in antisocial styles.”

In the end, Walker and his team called on policymakers to “recognize” their unconscious bias towards cars as well as how serious of a public health hazard driving is.

“We suggest that this motonormative thought style is as endemic amongst the government and the medical profession as in the general population,” the research team argued. “This means core public health and sustainability issues are being systematically neglected by policymakers.”

“People within such roles need to recognize their own unconscious biases, to work towards providing objective judgments of the consequences of travel and to build these into their day-to-day work,” they added.

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