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We were promised that self-driving cars would ease the pain of the commute, and for a while it seemed that automobile companies were going to deliver. But the mass-market self-driving car is still years away, and the bloom has begun to come off the rose, especially with the first death of a person inside a self-driving car. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating the fatal Tesla crash. Meanwhile, most consumers continue to be wary of putting their lives in the hands of robots.

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Still, the self-driving cars do have some things going for them: They’re programmed not to drive recklessly, unlike us volatile humans who are prone to road rage and bad decisions. For years, public-policy officials have been interested in the question of what curbs reckless driving and in 2000, researcher Orit Tubman-Ben-Ari tested a slightly morbid tactic: reminders of death.

She was inspired by terror management theory, or TMT, a psychological theory that posits that almost everything we do is influenced by our awareness of our own mortality. According to TMT, there are two ways to manage our terror: creating meaning in our lives, and increasing our self-esteem. Studies have shown that people who have plenty of those two (lucky folks!) are far less anxious when reminded of their impending deaths.

Taubman-Ben-Ari suggests that reckless driving, despite increasing the possibility of injury, might be physiologically arousing and lead to an increase in self-esteem, thus paradoxically helping the risky driver feel less afraid of death. This last part is especially salient for young people who, studies have shown, often tend to overemphasize the gains in risky behavior.

In a series of studies, Taubman-Ben-Ari and other researchers wanted to see if reminders of death make people less reckless. They hypothesized that people who connected driving with self-esteem would drive more recklessly, because that subsequent self-esteem boost would help fight back the fear of death.

The experiments don’t sound pleasant. The nearly 700 male participants completed surveys analyzing how much driving was connected to their self-esteem. Some participants were asked to think about their own deaths. Others watched a video of a car accident’s gruesome aftermath.  Half the subjects were reminded of their deaths, and then everyone was surveyed again on how likely they were to drive recklessly. The last part was achieved either by asking them a hypothetical question, or by testing their driving speed in a car simulator.

In five of the six small studies, men who connected driving to self-esteem were more likely to drive recklessly after being reminded of their deaths. Men who didn’t connect their driving ability with their self-worth saw little change from the death reminders.

It’s impressive that the sample size was so large, though a shame that the researchers didn’t test on women as well, and also that all the participants were between the ages of 18 and 21, so the results should not be applied too broadly. But the results still have interesting implications. While we might expect that reminders of death would make people be more careful, this study’s findings reveal just how complicated our psyches can be.


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Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol. 9, No. 6 (Dec., 2000), pp. 196-199
Association for Psychological Science