The Washington Post reports on a recent study linking bumper stickers and road rage. The authors of the study speculate that bumper stickers are territorial markers and that aggressive driving and road rage are "confused" expressions of territorial defense. Here is the abstract from that study:
Territorial Markings as a Predictor of Driver Aggression and Road Rage
Journal of Applied Social Psychology, Vol 38 (6) p1664-1688, June 2008
William J. Szlemko, Jacob A. Benfield, Paul A. Bell, Jerry L. Deffenbacher, Lucy Troup
Aggressive driving has received substantial media coverage during the past decade. We report 3 studies testing a territorial explanation of aggressive driving. Altman (1975) described attachment to, personalization of, and defense of primary territories (e.g., home) as being greater than for public territories (e.g., sunbathing spot on a beach). Aggressive driving may occur when social norms for defending a primary territory (i.e., one's automobile) become confused with less aggressive norms for defending a public territory (i.e., the road). Both number of territory markers (e.g., bumper stickers, decals) and attachment to the vehicle were significant predictors of aggressive driving. Mere presence of a territory marker predicts increased use of the vehicle to express anger and decreased use of adaptive/constructive expressions.
Consider an alternative explanation for the association between bumper stickers and road rage. Bumper stickers might actually be markers of narcissism.
Narcissists feel a heightened need to be seen and recognized for their uniqueness and superiority. Bumper stickers afford a narcissistic car owner just such an opportunity. Narcissists may invest in the specialness of their tastes, their moral sensibilities, their group affiliations, their intellect, their politics, their humor, their children, their school or their team -- anything that they believe marks them as superior to others. But for the narcissist, it is not enough to merely feel this way. Others must recognize the narcissist's superiority. While bumper stickers generally fail to impress the average person, they are, potentially, markers and badges of personal superiority for narcissists who display them.
Why would narcissism also be associated with road rage?
The narcissist's psychic survival depends upon a heavily-defended sense of superiority. When the actions of others defeat those defenses, the narcissist is filled with humiliation and rage. A psychologically wounded narcissist becomes consumed with fantasies of retaliation aimed at restoration of the sense of superiority.
Driving is fraught with experiences that disaffirm any pretensions to superiority. Other drivers whiz past us, grab parking spaces we hoped to get, fail to grant right of way, drive too slowly or too fast -- all of these are potentially enraging to the narcissist whose sense of superiority is insulted by other drivers who fail to appreciate the special deference the narcissist requires. The subjective sense of psychic threat from these failures of deference is so great that the narcissist's momentary need to retaliate supersedes reasonable considerations for physical safety.
But the problem doesn't just occur when the narcissist is wronged in some objective sense. Narcissists are highly reluctant to take full or even partial responsibility for commonplace errors. So, the narcissist rages at the driver that he just cut off or gives the finger to someone he just beat to a parking space. If there is a conflict or a dispute, it can never be explained by the narcissist's fallibility. It's always the other guy's fault.
More on Narcissism: See The Narcissist's Inability to Apologize or Express Thanks in Everyday Life