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by Justin Coulson
May 6, 2015
Photography by Jered Gruber
We all like to think of ourselves as self-aware individuals, but often there is something that takes over when we join a bunch ride or hit the cafe after a hard hit-out with our mates. While most other sports are confined to a closed field and locker-room, cycling takes place in public amongst others who are going about their day in a much different mindset. Psychologist Dr. Justin Coulson explains the group dynamics behind our sometimes self-detrimental behaviour.
Have you ever noticed that as bunches get bigger, cyclist’s behaviour often deteriorates? Conversations become louder. Gestures toward motorists become more aggressive. Riders who would normally be polite and engaging when alone or in a small group become bad-mannered, spitting or swearing as if they are the only ones on the road.
It does not happen for all of us. And it is an issue that is not necessarily unique to cyclists. But what is it that happens to our manners as we meet up with our mates to ride? Is there something about the ‘pack’ mentality that interferes with our ability to think before we speak or act? And, given the image problem cyclists appear to have with the general public, could we be harming our reputation and radicalising motorists against us?
Ok, so scholars love big words, but this word explains a few things very neatly. Researchers used to think that if you were in a big group you might behave inappropriately because of a sense that you are no longer bound by social norms. The group offers anonymity, so you can get away with more. Your behaviour is the group’s behaviour. You are not seen as an individual, but as part of a big group. You’re hard to identify. And so you can get away with more. This is even moreso when we are all wearing the same uniform (with lycra and shaved legs).
Could this explain the poor behaviour of some bunches of cyclists? Well, not quite.
More recent research has indicated that the deindividuation process is a good explanation for group behaviour, but it is context based. It is not that people in big groups ignore social norms. Research actually shows that when in big groups, we actually become more normative, but we do so in alignment with the norms of that particular group. In other words, the group culture drives our behaviour, rather than the fact we might not get caught.
It is group norms, combined with deindividuation the explains why large crowds of soccer hooligans smash cars and shop windows but large crowds of students in a lecture theatre sit quietly and take notes. It helps us see why cycling bunches ride through red lights, throw their gel wrappers on the road, spit too close to passing cars, or stick their helmets on the tables in cafes. We are motivated, not by the fact we are unidentifiable, but by a desire to adhere to the group’s culture.
If we are part of a group of cyclists with different norms to those I just described, we typically conform to that group’s way of behaving – even if we might behave like a boofhead when we’re alone! Those who live for and love the Hell Ride behave the way they do because that is the culture of the group. Those who ride in bunches that behave differently are still deindividuated, but their behaviour will align with whoever leads that bunch. We may be pro-social or anti-social in a group, based on group context and norms, rather than simply being anti-social because we are in a big group.
The second critical thing that occurs when we get together for a bunch ride is that we are easily and instantly focused on what is right in front of us, in the moment. This lack of awareness is not unique to cyclists. In fact it characterises most humans most of the time. In a restaurant a group may be noisily enjoying a celebration while oblivious to the couple sitting nearby trying to have a quiet and romantic conversation. My bunch meets at around 4.15am to ride. I’ve noticed that even though we sometimes start our ride in a residential area, the riders I’m with speak as loudly as they might if it were 8am. But with no traffic, no environmental noises, and nothing to buffer the sound, we really make a racket. (This situation does not appear to be unique to my area.)
These two issues can explain how cyclists transform themselves once they’re in a bunch with their mates.
Unfortunately it only takes one negative instance of a cyclist doing something foolish or rude or illegal and a stereotype is created. Psychological research has shown, consistently, that the negative is more powerful than the positive. It does not matter how many times a motorist sees cyclists doing the right thing. One wrong thing and they think ‘they’re all the same’. It does not matter how often we are polite in a cafe, removing our gloves and helmets and keeping them off the tables. One noisy, sweaty group of cyclists who show a lack of awareness of others by being rude and patrons in that cafe will form a negative impression.
Social psychologists might argue that our group behaviours and our lack of awareness actually ‘radicalise’ others against us. When we behave in a way that upsets someone, they form a belief about us. The more they experience that behaviour from us (or similar behaviours from others in the same uniform), the more entrenched their beliefs about us become. It becomes irrelevant that most of us do the right thing most of the time. Neutral and positive experiences with us – as an ‘out-group’ – will be easily dismissed. They actually begin to see us as the enemy. We are a menace. We are dangerous. We are inconsiderate, loud law-breakers.
The answer is simple to understand, but challenging to implement. We ensure that in any circumstance where we might be deindividuated, that the norms of our group are positive and pro-social. We work towards being more mindful, being aware of those around us and being polite. And we recognise that everything we do could plausibly used to stereotype all cyclists, and we behave accordingly.
If we want to improve our image and generate public support, we need to stop justifying our bad behaviour on the fact that motorists or the public hate us and so why should we respect them. We cannot play the victim card, because the more we do that, the more we create enmity between “us and them”. Even doing all the right things all the time may not be enough for some. But simple courtesy, awareness, and treating others as real people will increase the likelihood that they will see us in the same light, and make life more comfortable for all of us. (Ahh… world peace…)