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A New Study on Racetrack Collisions Shows How Competition Escalates Into Conflict

Competitors of equal ability and status are more likely to engage in dangerous driving.
A crash occurs during the Formula One Singapore Grand Prix in Singapore on September 17th, 2017.

A crash occurs during the Formula One Singapore Grand Prix in Singapore on September 17th, 2017.

Formula One racing is a fine metaphor for life. Don't we spend most of our time running in circles, trying not to fall behind, and thoughtlessly spewing planet-harming pollution in the process?

Well, new research shows careful observation of those Grand Prix go-rounds can boost our understanding of one key aspect of human behavior. An analysis of racetrack collisions reveals the specific conditions under which competition can accelerate into dangerous confrontation.

"These escalations into conflict are especially likely among status-similar competitors, who are fraught with discordant understandings of who is superior to whom," a research team led by economist Henning Piezunka writes in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In other words, the drivers involved tend to be around the same age and performance level, with each determined to not let the other get in his way.

Using data on Formula One races from 1970 through 2014, the researchers modeled the probability that two drivers would collide on the racetrack, which they understatedly call "an observable trace of conflict."

They find such incidents tend to occur "among age-similar dyads, among stronger performers, in stable competitive networks, and in safe, rather than dangerous, weather conditions."

In social-science-research terms, the competitors enjoy "structural equivalence"—which is to say, their status level is very similar. That creates a strong sense of rivalry, since "they sense that the value of their location in this pecking order depreciates when it is shared."

"Neither sees a clear reason to cede social turf to the other," the researchers write. Efforts to intimate the others escalate until "car-on-car contact can occur. An escalating series of actions and reactions culminates in a collision, as neither is willing to give way."

While conceding that the track presents some specific conditions that differ from business or politics—for example, drivers cannot form a coalition with like-minded others to fight their competitors—Piezunka and his colleagues argue the dynamic they identify in this arena is hardly confined to racing.

"Incompatible opinions of who should give way to whom is an important feature of social and economic life," they note. Unless we find a way to steer around them, expect more crashes—metaphorical and otherwise.