Skip to main content

Can a Negative Outlook Create a Dangerous Driver?

A Chinese study finds people who pay more attention to what's bad about the world also get in more accidents.
(Photo: TairA/Shutterstock)

(Photo: TairA/Shutterstock)

There goes Mr. Driver, a crazed lunatic roaring down the road, weaving through traffic, just a twitch away from killing somebody. What makes Mr. Driver such a menace? Sure, anger has a lot to do with it, but Chinese driving researchers have identified something perhaps more fundamental: Negativity bias, the tendency to focus on what's bad in the world around us.

Past research has shown angry driving can lead to accidents in a number of different ways. For one, angry people have a harder time paying attention to the road. A 2012 study showed that people more prone to angry outbursts tended to focus on sources of frustration—a jaywalking pedestrian in the rear-view mirror, for example—than what was going on in front of them. Similarly, a 2011 study showed emotional conversations can lead to "visual tunneling," where drivers stop scanning the road ahead for potential hazards. The broader lesson is that anger makes it harder to think clearly and quickly, and to process what's going on, making for dangerous driving.

Within those observations, however, is a key point that may have been overlooked in previous efforts, explain Jing Chai and her colleagues at the Chinese Academy of Science's Institute of Psychology in Beijing: Angry people also tend to focus on the worst things going on around them, rather than positive or simply neutral events. That is, they exhibit negativity bias.

Dangerous drivers took longer to respond on the border-color task when the image was negative as opposed to neutral.

Wondering whether negativity bias might have something to do with bad driving, Chai and the team assembled 38 non-professional drivers, each of whom had been driving for at least three years and had amassed 30,000 kilometers on the road. The researchers split those drivers up into two groups using the Beijing Traffic Management Bureau assessments, based on offenses like running red lights or not wearing a seatbelt. Fifteen drivers were deemed dangerous, while the other 23 were deemed safe. Each driver first took a survey of their driving habits. Then, they were asked to identify whether a series of 80 pictures had blue or red borders, though the important thing was the pictures themselves—a series of images meant to evoke negative, positive, or neutral emotions.

Dangerous drivers took longer to respond on the border-color task when the image was negative as opposed to neutral, the researchers found, while there was no such difference for safe drivers. Though the negativity bias for dangerous drivers wasn't huge—they took just a few hundredths of a second longer to react for negative versus neutral images—it was strongly correlated with the number of crashes each driver had been in during the previous three years.

"[W]e observed stronger negativity biases in dangerous drivers than in safe drivers," the authors write in PLoS One. "The influence of negativity bias provides one possible explanation for the effects of individual differences on dangerous driving behavior and traffic crashes."


Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.