Monday, June 14, 2010


I've been thinking a lot lately about  Empathy.
A lot of the rules that we use to order society:  Fairness,  Sharing, The Golden rule,  rely on an underpinning of empathy, which I define as the ability to imagine yourself in the situation of another.

You may have learned the Golden Rule, or to share your toys, in kindergarten,  but if you can't really imagine the impact your actions have on others,  if you can't put yourself in the position of the kid whose toy has been stolen,  it's kind of an empty form,  that you learn "because I say so."

Fortunately, or unfortunately, most kids have the experience of getting a toy stolen, or being pushed by a bigger kid, etc etc, so you don't have to imagine so much as remember how it felt as an encouragement to "do to others".

I read a really disturbing article in the NY Times this weekend about animal abuse, and how it's being increasingly investigated and prosecuted as a marker of lack of empathy, and a forewarning (or correlation) with child abuse or spousal abuse.

The Scientist and I have had a lot of interesting discussions ( or as I think of it, one conversation that has gone on for years)  about experience, and how that builds empathy,  and how there are some kinds of things that are beyond reasonable arguments, which come down to visceral experience.   Religion is one of those things-  you either feel lifted up by emotion when you hear "Amazing Grace, or you don't. Discrimination is another- it's hard to understand the subtleties of how it feels to be a minority until you've experienced it in some sense.

To relate it to bicycling, most failures of sharing the road seem related to lack of empathy.
Drivers can't imagine what it would feel like to have a multi-ton steel box whiz by a foot from your elbow. They don't think about the person on two wheels, they see an obstacle to forward progress.
In turn, bikers don't  think about someone who carefully waited for an opening to pass carefully, and then sits at a red light as the biker they carefully passed squeezes between parked cars and runs a light,  making the driver wait for another chance in the next block to pass them safely. A  biker might experience righteous indignation at someone risking the bikers life for a few second's gain.   A driver might think "that's not fair"  I obey the rules, why shouldn't that biker"
 Empathy underlies our sense of fairness,  and we get unusually angry and upset when someone (a scofflaw cyclist,  a reckless driver, an investment banker) flagrantly violates the rules of fairness.  I think that we often seem to over-react to these disregards to empathetic behaviour because we're personally invested in notions of fairness that underpin civil society.

The best solution for increasing road empathy in drivers, and the good behaviors that spring from empathy (fairness, sharing etc)  of course is to get more people on bikes.  
Even if people don't become regular cyclists,  I think that the visceral experience of riding in traffic (like the experiences gained at the playground) will allow drivers to remember, rather than having to imagine a biker's perspective  from scratch.  Since most bikers are also drivers, I'm not sure what the solution is.   I wonder if bikers felt less like a persecuted and endangered minority, they would feel less rebellious and less like vigilantes, disregarding the laws that are inconvenient to obey.

Infrastructure helps encourage people to get out there on bikes.  So does positive media- especially media that suggests riding is a practical and enjoyable way to get from point A to point B, something that can be enjoyed by anyone.   This is one of the reasons that I like to ride in normal clothes  (the main reason of course is that it's so much easier).  If people see a normal person, not a super athlete,  riding in work clothes,  maybe they can more easily imagine themselves on two wheels.  I invite them to try,  and hope that it will help them have more empathy for everyone on the road.


  1. Excellent post. Combined with the notion that people reflect our moods and emotions back at us, it's apparent that when we cyclists most want empathy from car drivers, we need to be empathetic first, clearly and consistently, even in the most difficult or trying of situations. Anger as a response to anger is easy, natural, but gets us nowhere instantly. To ride happy, you have to ride happy. People will see that, and happy back at you.

  2. This is an excellent post. I have noticed that since I gave up my lycra, people seem friendlier toward me when I'm on my bike. I think that, as you say, the see me as being more like them.

    Also, I find that being a woman on a bike increases the amount of empathy non-cyclists have for me. I found that, interestingly enough, drivers--even bus drivers here in New York City--are more courteous to me than when I cycled as a man.

    By the way, what you said about discrimination is exactly what I've learned. I never understood what discrimination was until I started my transition and former colleagues and supervisors decided that my work, which they used to like, wasn't so good anymore, and that my formerly-respectable credentials were no longer adequate.

    One result of that is that I empathise with my black students--and they do the same for me.

  3. I don't know that sheer numbers of people on bikes is as important as having a bigger fraction of those on bikes riding politely and some pressure on the few nasty motorists to behave. Either way, empathy or The Golden Rule goes a long way to improving everyone's travel.

  4. Ah, empathy is my research specialty, so much to say!... But I won't, or I won't be able to stop myself from being pedantic : ))

    I will say though, that I think drivers' disdain for cyclists is not because they can't picture themselves in the cyclists' place. Rather, I think they do not agree with the legal status of cyclists being allowed on the roads. To them, cyclists are making a bad choice and are thus inconveniencing everybody else on the roads. In fact, I'd venture to say that many drivers think it's the cyclists who need more empathy to realise how difficult they make life for drivers : )

  5. Great post! Would you be willing to run this same piece on my blog:

  6. Great post! The lack of empathy and politeness on the road is unfortunately a reflection of society, I think. I have been verbally attacked by a 13 year old boy on the sidewalk (walking) for no reason except being there. I was also pushed into a wall at an aquarium going into a bathroom because I wasn't moving fast enough for a couple of 10 year old girls. If I had done this as a child, I would have been sure my mother would kill me! Get those kids out in a car where they can be hidden and they will do anything. The blogger that competed in several triathalons and called herself "fat cyclist" had to quit because of the toxic talk and name calling (though she was an inspiration of health to most...some just had to bring her down and let her know how worthless she was to them). How can we expect any different on the road. There are some people that hate, and if you get in their way they'll let you know your life means nothing to them, regardless if you are in the road, in the boardroom, sitting in your pew at church, or even on your computer in your own living room. All is not lost, though, because the majority are good, empathetic people and they outweigh the few.

  7. I've recently started bicycling again after many, many years of being away from two wheels. I'm not quite brave enough yet to cycle around the busy parts of town to do errands, but that's what I'm building up to. Now that I've started riding my bicycle among cars (even in the much less busy parts of town) I'm not so sure I was driving my car as safely around bicycles as I thought I had been. Bicycling has made me much more conscious about my driving.

  8. Thanks for this insightful post (and blog!) Perhaps empathy comes with age.Recently hitting 50, I find I'm much more empathetic towards old(er) folks, the people who care for them, people with mental disabilities, refugees toughing it out in 'detention centers'.People who aren't the 'same'as me Even car drivers, from time to time. I do have trouble,though, with the blokes who run BP.regards,Ian,Melbourne,Australia

  9. Oh I just saw this.

    Great post and I agree with velouria that Drivers think we are being risky and sometimes downright dangerous and in doing so inconviencing them for our own risky thrill seeking. I also think that the more risky we behave the less we appear to be vulnerable to pain and thus don't need empathy b/c we are so risky we clearly can't really be thoughtful about our safety or feel fear/ pain etc.

  10. My experience runs more along the lines of Velouria - I find drivers most aggressive when traffic is so congested it slows even bicycle traffic. They think bicyclists are required to use sidewalks (and not allowed to use streets with no sidewalks or bike lanes), so they consider it aggressive and illegal for bicycles to use narrow lanes and ridiculous for bicyclists to act like motorists (follow traffic signals and turn left from the left lane).

    I find motorists in Philadelphia more aggressive to each other than they were 15-10 years ago (I now find far more honking at motorists that stop at red lights). Now that they've been installing door zone bicycle lanes the hostility to bicyclists is astounding. (If the city is taking space to install bike lanes, motorists don't want bicyclists outside bike lanes, but they also use the bike lanes for double parking, so motorists don't seem to want bicyclists in the bike lanes either).