SUSPICIOUS MINDS New research has found that 70% of cyclists think motorists are out to hurt them. How can such a high figure be explained?
(Most) motorists aren’t trying to hurt us. Rather, we co-exist in a road network that’s rarely in our favour
Cycling makes you paranoid. Well, at least urban cycling in London does, according to a study published in the Psychiatry Research journal. The authors of State Paranoia and Urban Cycling, (Ellet, Kingston & Chadwick), studied 323 London cyclists, using an online survey to measure levels of both state and trait paranoia (state refers to paranoia in specific situations; trait is measured in general terms). Results showed that 70% of those surveyed displayed state paranoia and that there was “no association between state and trait paranoia.” That means this bunch weren’t a paranoid lot in general, but their paranoia was sparked by cycling in London.
This isn’t just a case of anxiety caused by cycling in a stressful environment, even though that is at work here. This goes further - to be classed as paranoia there needs to be a perception that other road users intend to cause harm. 70% of participants agreed with at least one of these statements - ‘hostile towards me’ (58%); ‘wants to upset me’ (45%); ‘wants to harm me’ (29%) and ‘has it in for me’ (50%). The study also examined state/trait paranoia on the London Underground - a mode of transport that, while has a history of terrorist atrocities, is a lower threat environment. It showed lower state paranoia and a correlation between state and trait paranoia - ie people who had high paranoia generally were also paranoid about tube travel.
So aside from cyclists being more paranoid about car drivers than jihadis, what can we take away from the study? How can we explain comments, such as one made by a participant, that “I honestly view every driver as if he’s trying to kill me”?
That 70% finding seems high - surely, only a small minority could ever wish to inflict pain on another human being. But then it only takes one bad encounter - the sort where the driver, in fact, is wildly paranoid about cyclists - to colour a person’s entire perception of motorists. The 70% tells a story of the great stress London cyclists - and UK cyclists in general - are under on our roads, where anxiety morphs into paranoia. As the authors say, “far from being a pathological response, observed state paranoia is an understandable response to an urban environment containing significant and very real threat.”
Rather than being a negative, might paranoia actually be a useful state for us to be in? “[Future] research might also explore if high levels of state paranoia increase safety when cycling in urban environments – and if so, is there an optimal level of state paranoia, beyond which it ceases to protect the agent and is even detrimental?” the report says.
(Most) motorists aren’t trying to hurt us. Rather, we co-exist in a society that worships the car and a road network that’s rarely in our favour. Until that changes, paranoia feels like a rational response to the status quo.