Motorcycle driving is usually understood in terms of practicality, specific abilities/skills, and symbolism – associated with individualism, challenge and risk. This paper aims to explore this topic under the scope of emotions and feelings invested in the ownership of the motorcycle and in the driving experience in the context of the “real world.”
Photograph © 2018 Michael Lichter. [Fig.1]
It is widely acknowledged that a strong bond is developed between an object and its owner (Belk, 1988) at the exact moment ownership registers in the brain as an “enhanced activity” (Turk, van Bussel, Waiter & Macrae, 2011). Objects give us a notion of origin, identity and direction; where we come from, who we are and where we plan to go (Damasio, 1999). They “…serve an important function as ostensive markers of self-identity” (Hood, 2011, 128); the attachment to objects is an investment in the extended self. According to Sartre (1943), we develop emotional bonds with our belongings in three ways. First, via control and mastership as is the case of mastering a musical instrument. Second, through initial creation or at the moment of their acquisition; buying something suggests an act of creation, as is the equivalent of “building” it. Finally, investing the acquired object with meaning and imaginary rapport adds a fourth dimension according to Belk (1988) which is the distinctive presence of the item in our everyday lives. This is how the perception of the shared history is built and interpreted extensively by people with a materialistic perspective and by those who correlate strongly the object’s ownership to happiness and the perception of self (Richins & Dawson, 1992).
In a symbolic context, vehicles are related to a social value (both in terms of meaning and social hierarchy), and generate an affective charge for the owner/user of the object. This applies to the vehicle as consuming object per se, as well as to its so called “semiology;” the (pragmatic and/or imaginary) ability offered to the user/driver in terms of the (pragmatic and/or imaginary) “control/mastery of the road.”
In this context, the road is perceived as a field (in a perspective inspired by Bourdieu – Thompson, 1991), meaning (a) a structured and configured interaction area, in the context of which (b) participants hold objective and hierarchical relations, and (c) have some qualified resources to achieve targets, which in this case are related to unobstructed speed. Riders present themselves as masters of the road, controlling and applying power, gaining in terms of prestige, recognition and high evaluation, increasing their symbolic capital investment. In other words, driving from a Bourdieu’s (1993) perspective regarding the stratification of the cultural field is the result of the two opposing principles of hierarchization (heteronomous and autonomous); automobiles are produced massively, being available to everybody and presenting a meaning for everybody, while motorcycles, produced for the few, substantially support the meaning of the autonomy within the borderline context of an individual unobstructed mobility open to a major risk.
Furthermore, competitiveness in the field of the road would be unattainable without a minimum of trust and collaboration. Each user of the street should predict the actions of the others while also being predictable himself. This means that the street is a field of communication and interaction (where possibilities are expressed, projected and calculated, future reactions are mutually under negotiation etc.). Coexistence does not require only compliance to the Road Traffic Code (without mention of the many inherent disobediences depending on the micro-situation and the wider local socio-driving style), but, mainly, this compliance is interpreted in the context of a large number of meaningful objects. Communication and interaction includes the indications and messages related to driving (purposeful or not movements of the vehicles, nods of the drivers, flashing of the lights, use of the horn, etc.). They can also be other things, not so relevant to the action of driving per se, such as the characteristics of the vehicle, the brand, the color, the style, as well as the appearance of the driver etc. (see also Keegan, 1996; Peretti-Wattel, 2001). On a macro-level, even though the interpretations of the abovementioned indications are not totally homogeneous (in language and elsewhere, the system of connotations is never absolute), transactions and behaviors are coordinated relatively successfully – otherwise the already tragic number of collisions and accidents would be increased by far. Obviously, here it is applied in driving the Goffman’s (1959, 1967) approach regarding action and interaction.
In the context of the daily routine, the use of motorcycles incorporates escapism and playfulness combined with a risky attitude – since, the aforementioned “road control” implies more risks for the rider than for the car driver. The benefits of riding a motorcycle are many and attractive (transportation speed, easy parking, economic maintenance) but those benefits hold an inherent symbolic value, especially when the cars (even those of a higher status in terms of price, luxury, power and technological perfection) are “left behind” on the road, condemned to stay still.
The practical and the symbolic meaning of driving is difficult to be distinguished in a society of mobility and speed in which people need to feel they have full control over themselves. This belief in control is served by using their own vehicles and is further enhanced in riding because of the extra skills needed in order to stay safe on two wheels, as well as to prove that “they are worthy of driving” their motorbikes. As risk and danger are inherent in the action of riding (obviously more than in the action of driving), it is easily identified as an “extreme sport” and experienced as a “self-upgrading” ritual; thus riding not only enhances the image of self, but also supports the sense that life is worth living (Christakis, 2013; Le Breton, 2000).
At this point, the study of edgework activities can be enlightening about how risk is voluntarily taken and perceived. Edgework (Lyng, 1990) refers to activities that involve the process of negotiating the boundary lines between life and death, consciousness and unconsciousness, sanity and insanity, order and disorder, form and chaos, while testing participants’ ability to overcome fear. Edgeworkers experience “self-actualization,” omnipotence and empowerment, as well as a sense of belonging to an elite; they are constantly motivated to ameliorate their abilities and return to the activity that produces such feelings. Within this theoretical framework, “free” and “spontaneous” action appears in dialectical relation with “constrained” action. Edgework (same as consumption, although in another dimension) constitutes an active, creative and ego-enhancing response to social psychological conditions of modern postindustrial society. Under this perspective, because the riders in our study appear to ride their motorcycles not only as means of transportation, but also as a domain of important personal involvement, self-improvement, accomplishment and identification, we can consider riding as a “serious leisure” activity (Stebbins, 2007).
Independence and autonomy, the main aspects of the dominant masculine identity (of a more or less “adventurous” or even “egocentric/aggressive” lifestyles), are loudly proclaimed in the context of riding as motorcycles symbolize freedom and unconventionality (Sumser, 2015). This does not suggest of course that women are less capable of riding, or that women and motorbikes cannot co-exist – however this is not a topic to discuss in this paper.
So far, we discussed the symbolic context of the motorbike and of the motorbike riding. Now, we will focus on the rider’s attitude and behavior as seen under a purely emotional perspective. The sense of danger is crucial when analyzing driving behavior. Balancing on two wheels, maneuvering between obstacles, avoiding accidents, calculating speed, angle and friction when taking a turn, being constantly self-aware are only a few of the tasks a rider has to accomplish accurately and efficiently, while feeling, at the same time, more or less morally obliged to seek immersion in the involving and enjoyable “flow experience” (Csikszentmihályi, 1990). In parallel, for many and diverse reasons (fatigue, intoxication, aggressive driving due to wider psycho-social frustrations or due to an individualistic/showy lifestyle, playfulness, conjectural threats or frustrations at the level of “street control” etc.) some motorcyclists, as well as car drivers, may show recklessness or even aggressiveness, pushing the vehicle and themselves to their limits and risking their own and others’ safety. This kind of behavior, as supported by empirical research and in compliance to the common sense, is amplified when it comes in the case of riders (Horswill & Hellman, 2003), while there is also evidence that riders are more careful, “defensive” and conservative on the road than car drivers (Huth, Füssl & Risser, 2014). In general, as regards riders of a younger age, lack of experience is considered an important predictive risk factor (among others), while more experienced middle-aged drivers are in danger due to a reduction in their perceptual capacity (Petridou & Moustaki, 2001).
It is interesting to note at this point that some particularly risky behaviors can be understood under the “illusion of control” (Langer, 1975), which usually leads to an underestimation of the chances for something bad to happen to us. This is due to the false perception that as drivers we are in control of every aspect of the situation, and therefore we are protected, since “it can only happen to others” according to the so-called “optimistic bias” (Weinstein, 1984) or “bias of invulnerability” (Μillstein, 1993, see also Sharot, 2011). Studies in the field of social cognition indicate the gravity of such “irrational”, as well as common social beliefs. However, our knowledge of how the emotions and feelings of motorcycle riders emerge and are processed during the experience of everyday riding is still very limited.
Motorcycle driving and emotions
Emotions should not be confused with feelings. Emotion is defined as a biological reaction which is physically expressed (e-motion) when a person is exposed to a stimulus (Damasio, 2004). Emotions usually have short-term impact and are unconsciously triggered. In contrast, feelings have a more complicated anatomy. They stem from the cognitive processing of emotions and can be described as a mental recreation of the emerging psychological change. Their nature makes them less intense but much more persistent than emotions, allowing them to dictate behavior and choice.
Emotions and feelings are codependent, as an emotion can produce a certain feeling and, at the same time, a feeling can lead to or enhance a certain emotion. Exposure to any source of emotion (such as a frustrating or stressful situation) generates specific feelings and vice versa, as having feelings about something can provoke a certain emotional response. Imagine a mother and her child shopping in a supermarket. The child holds a chocolate bar and is rude and stubborn, asking the mother to buy it. The mother gets angry and her emotions motivate her to aggressively grab the bar from the kid. From another point of view, the mother might be feeling angry due to a previous fight she had at work and have an outbreak on the child without excuse.
Basic emotions are universal, automatic, fast, and trigger behaviors with a high survival value. So much can hardly be said for more complex emotions such as humility or nostalgia, which, for example, are never attributed to infants or animals. Research following Darwin’s approach to basic emotions has shown that there are universal emotions (anger, fear, happiness, disgust, sadness and surprise) and universal expressions for each emotion (Ekman & Friesen, 1971).
Ekman (2004) has stated that we can only be emotional about things that we are truly interested in, thus usually emotions take place when someone senses a potential danger for his/her well-being (where “danger” stands for any disrupting experience). Ekman uses the term “autoappraisers” to describe the ongoing and constantly active action that scans the environment for potential changes that may affect positively or negatively our well-being. But Ekman also argued about some other factors that result from a higher mental processing (extended appraisal, remembering, imagination, empathy, discussions, symbolic pathway and norm violation) (Davou, 2017), which can contribute to the establishment of a long term emotional state and can be described in terms of feelings.
Emotions are inherent in every animal as a natural defense system, which create on-the-spot life-saving responses. Basic emotions evolved as a response to challenges faced by our ancestors and, in a way, are primitive and connected to a neurological circuit. They exist to guard our well-being and, of course, our survival (Damasio, 2004), as they motivate and direct brain functions. It can be argued that emotions set behavior making it meaningful (Solomon, 2004).
Chan and Shingal (2013) conducted a study for the impact of emotions on driving. Their findings show that emotions have a great influence on drivers’ attention, mainly because their attention is redirected to emotional stimuli rather than the road, reducing their ability to drive safely and process information.
Berkowitz (1990) has argued that anger can be perceived as either a feeling or as set of aggressive movements and expressions. People usually become angry when they feel under threat, either physical or symbolic, such as an insult on one’s self-esteem or dignity. At that point, anger is a mutation of fear, a reaction which takes over when we feel threatened to help us act quickly. Generally, this is true, but fear and its connection to other feelings is analyzed below.
It is common knowledge that people get furious with those who are perceived as putting in danger their safety or who have insulted them in a symbolic way. It seems, however, that anger can be addressed to others even if they don’t carry any responsibility at all. Exposure to disrupting conditions, such as extreme heat or unpleasant smells, or the experience of a major frustration can generate anger, although there is no one to blame except for the circumstances (Anderson, 1989, Berkowitz, 1989). Spielberg (1999) has come up with two functions of anger expression, Anger-In and Anger-Out. Anger-in stands for anger internalization and suppression, while externalizing such feelings is described as Anger-Out, which is the case of a verbal or physical attack. Internalization can help anger turn from the state of emotion to a more lasting feeling creating tension and negativity (Dahlen, Deffenbacher & Lynch, 1998). Anger-Out is mainly considered a male tactic, given that social stereotypes justify (or even dictate) men’s aggressive behavior while women tend to internalize their frustration as they are trained and expected to act in more socially acceptable manners. As a result, men are impulsive but their anger last less than women, who accumulate frustrations and enter longer periods of negativity.
Having noted that anger can be the result of fear, we should further analyze how fear is triggered and the related response. People feel uncomfortable for the unknown and are afraid of anything they perceive as threat. As an emotional load, the feeling of fear might stem from a previous unpleasant experience or a cognitive schema, such as the fear of outlaws. Fear, as an emotional state, needs more time than anger to become a feeling. As an emotion, though, it is expressed with automated, almost reflective actions. Cannon (1925) studied those actions and concluded that they can be categorized in two groups. Fight-or-flight responses can be described as the activation of the amygdala which controls the vital physical parts of our bodies and gives us enough drive to either encounter the threat or “fly” away, depending on a spontaneous assessment.
There is a third reaction included in the fight-or-flight response called “freeze.” It is the well known fluster that occurs when one is under shock. Although this makes an individual vulnerable to the threat, it gives the chance to briefly withdraw, examine the situation and find the best possible solution. However, freeze has also been related to post-traumatic stress which deprives the individual from the ability to act (Teatero & Penney, 2015).
When one is fearful, a negative impression about a given situation has been formed and the fearful individual tends to avoid similar actions and situations. At this point, it has to be said that it is common for fear to turn into anger or rage. Lazarus (1991) stated that fear and anger have many things in common, the most significant of which is their goal. Both exist to save us from a threatening situation and help us stay intact, physically or emotionally. The difference can be spotted in how they work, meaning that when angry, one approaches the problem in order to deal with it while, when afraid, one may withdraw in an effort not to engage (Stemmler, Aue & Wacker, 2007).
On the other side, happiness is the most characteristic of the positive emotions. It is thought to affect judgment in a positive way and, at the same time, to reflect a perception of an overall well-being. The direct expression of happiness, joy, is an emotion related to a pleasant situation, present or past. People will act joyfully if a need or expectation is met (Volf, 2016). The symbolic value and self-perception of riding motorcycles can easily make the connection between riding and joy, which eventually leads to happiness. Being joyful and happy about something drives people to pursue a repetition of what initially caused such emotional reactions. In a way, happiness feeds the desire to repeat an action or get involved in an activity which produces such positive feelings.
Road safety depends on a wide range of factors, such as the street surface, construction details, weather conditions and many others, driver’s responsibility is unquestionable. Although driving might seem routine, given that we practice it so often and we all consider ourselves better than average drivers (Peretti-Wattel, 2001), every single situation is different. Every single time a rider gets on his bike he is fully aware of the looming dangers and the exciting moments to come and this brings with it an emotional load (Hancock, Hancock & Janelle, 2012).
One might ask what makes drivers angry when they are supposed to enjoy driving. To answer such a question we should consider all those occurring traffic frustrations (e.g. traffic lights, traffic congestion, other road users introducing obstacles and exhibiting behaviors of arrogance, violence and/or threat etc). It is beyond any doubt that comfort and customization offered by one’s own vehicle could not be found in public transportation. Driving one’s own vehicle means that almost every factor is adjustable to the owner’s preference – especially as is the case of a car, which presents a kind of extension of one’s residential space. Drivers have full authorization on their transport route, travel speed etc. However, the realization that not everything is under control (as initially believed) is enough to cause frustration. Joint (1995) concluded that, due to this kind of frustration, eventually driving may be perceived as one of the most uncomfortable experiences (see also Naatanen & Summala, 1976).
The perception of time is also of great importance. As everyday activities need more than the time available, people are occupied by a “sense of urgency” and feel increasingly under pressure and can become more easily irritated. The more people are concerned with time, the more aggressively they drive (Shinar & Compton, 2004). Impatience when looking for parking spaces or waiting for traffic lights intensifies the sense of delay and irritation (Britt & Garrity, 2006). Furthermore, it is found that stress is highly related to “seeking irritation” behaviors and risky driving (Oltedal & Rundmo, 2006).
On the other hand, the driving environment and weather conditions are vital when it comes to emotions and especially anger. Extreme heat during the summer or bad road condition is enough to offer unpleasant experience, not to mention the exhaust gases that riders constantly inhale. Anger is witnessed even when it is common knowledge that little depends on one’s actions to improve such conditions (Berkowitz, 1990). Often, when we encounter a frustrating situation we resort to aggressiveness, mainly verbal but also physical (Joint, 1995). Erlander, West and French (1992) describe some rude tactics used to demonstrate frustration, such as extreme use of the honk, headlights use, provoking gestures etc. Anonymity facilitates the expression of anger, acting as a kind of “protection shield” in the case of any violation. All this coincide with the conclusion that aggressive behavior on the road works as a tension release valve helping drivers to express feelings and experience a short emotional relief, without necessarily fixing any problems (DFT, 2004).
As stated above, fear can turn into anger under specific circumstances. Riders are more or less prepared for any careless (or aggressive) and potentially harmful action delivered by other drivers, and thus they feel constantly afraid. The way they manage fear results in the latter transforming into anger, the intensity and expression of which depends on what is at stake, how powerful they feel over others, and many other factors.
Emotions are known to be related to self-perception as well. Thinking of the motorbike as an extension of the rider’s body and personality, incarnating the most important aspects of self (Fong, Frost & Stansfeld, 2001), one can easily deduce that insulting them, or even worse jeopardizing them, is much more important than it might seem. This assumption is illustrated by the human-ecology approaches in terms of territory and personal space (Goffman, 1959; Hall, 1966). Personal space stands for what one defends as a vital space among others, thus the invisible borders surrounding one’s body and its extension that no one is allowed to violate. Such violations (or “offenses”), either on purpose or not, and perceived as a kind of road domination, could be easily forgivable if the involved parties were in a position to communicate adequately in the context of a “remedial interchange” (Goffman, 1967). The limited space for this kind of interchange due to the riders’ helmets and body distance (drivers are locked up in cars) feeds stress and rage.
Finally, the ambiguity over drivers’ rights, especially in areas with poor signage, leads to increased tension. Ignorance about priority and disobedience of traffic signs are blurred topics that often result in real fights, if not tragedies (Rolls & Ingham, 1992). In addition, we should always keep in mind what Broughton (2007) found in his research about driving attitudes; by examining 52,000 British drivers, Broughton demonstrated that the individuals’ attitude and personal characteristics when “off the road” are mirrored in their driving attitude and in their “on the road” behavior.
Given that there are plenty of reasons for drivers to get angry, it’s important to see how anger is expressed. Common ways of expressing anger include driving in close to the leading vehicle, shifting driving lanes nervously without warning, honking, etc. Aggressive driving is described as “punishing driving” by Britt and Garrity (2006), meaning that the frustrated driver complains to other passengers about other drivers’ annoying behaviors using bad language, or even attacks them verbally. Although a sole incident may not be enough to trigger an outburst, people tend to accumulate stimuli which finally result in extreme expression of the emotion (Goleman, 1995). This explains why an apparently insignificant event can cause the so called “road rage.” Of course, the expression of anger is inherently related to the perception of danger (real and/or “symbolic”), and the subjective prediction of what could go wrong and how serious the consequences are. The aforementioned fear and anger determine one’s perception of danger (Hu, Xie & Li, 2013).
Two similar yet differentiated theories have been stated about how fear and anger determine awareness and danger perception. The first is that negative emotions entail increased intuition thus improve attention and awareness. On the other hand, positive feelings deprive people from paying attention to vital details and make them reduce their cognitive and physical defenses (Johnson & Tversky, 1983). In second theory, fear and anger (commonly negative feelings) result in different behavior: fear makes drivers more careful and prudent, while anger reduces the perception of danger and leads to an increase of the violent attitudes (Lerner & Keltner, 2000).
Our study aims to interpret riders’ reactions to emotions and the way they manage feelings while driving, based on their reflections and narrative.
Qualitative research was dictated since the aim was to analyze the motorcycle riders’ consensus regarding various domains of experience across individual cases (Creswell, 2007). In particular, we used in-depth interviews grounded in a detailed interview guide aimed at understanding how riders interpret personal experience (Kvale, 1996; Robson, 2002). Each participant underwent an interview of two-hours duration, where they were encouraged to express themselves freely and to share emotions and beliefs drawing from their own experience (Bogdan & Bilken, 1997). Those interviews are quite similar to an in-depth discussion about a specific topic, though they are not bidirectional. The researcher uses an interview guide developed to meet thematic areas addressing two fundamental research questions and encourage interviewees to share their insights, beliefs and personal stories with the opportunity of more specific questions and probes (Hennink, Hutter & Bailey, 2011).
The two research questions/thematics that motivated and animated this study are the following:
Thematic 1: What are the basic aspects of a rider’s identity development/personal story?
Thematic 2: To what extent and in which way are the rider’s emotions generated and managed?
Thematic 1 is inherently related to Thematic 2 as the dimension of the riders’ identity/personal story highlights the conceptual frame of their emotional involvement on the road. The story of the rider as regards the motorcycle’s ownership and practice and his riding emotions and reactions are inseparable. The above-mentioned interview guide was developed as follows. Regarding Thematic 1 (rider’s identity), participants were asked details about their first riding experience, their motorbikes, their self-image, their riding attitude and the equipment they use. Thematic 2 (emotional management) concerned the emotions generated in the context of their riding lives and were explored on the basis of a detailed narration regarding a “remarkable riding experience.” We tried to analyze the circumstances, their reactions, the emotional and physical impact, and how this experience helped them observe emotional, cognitive and riding alterations better.
Study participants include 10 male adults who had been riding for more than two years. Inexperienced riders were declined as research participants, as they were thought to be a less rich source of information, and their conscious emotional management might still be under progress. All interviewees were between 25 and 35 years old, an age range that is considered to meet most of the determined criteria; riding a bike they own and bought by themselves and riding on an everyday basis. The choice of male riders was made in order to avoid branching to other social and identity issues that follow riding practiced by women.
Participants met with the researchers in a comfortable environment, at home or at a coffee shop. All interviews were conducted in Athens, Greece, between September and December 2015.
Results and discussion
Thematic 1: A rider’s identity
A rider lives a unique experience interrelated to his personal story. Participants described that they were first introduced to motorbikes during adolescence, either by riding a small bike during a summer holiday or while seeing peers and other persons riding. Furthermore, the attitude of a father who owns or likes motorbikes helped form a strong admiration and attraction for the two wheels vehicle. Ever since, riding is cognitively and emotionally related to a state of joy and playfulness.
M “While at High School. I was riding with my father and we were passing by stuck vehicles… It was fun!”
There is a strong element of admiration for other riders, combined with curiosity and a bold experimentation drive. This is rooted in the driver’s intimate or wider social environment (family, important others, friends, acquaintances, other bikers) and the relevant imaginary and narcissistic identifications.
G “I wanted it since I was a teenager. You know, everyone had a small bike those days…”
Β “I really liked it. I liked how I looked on it.”
In some occasions there is a previous contact and/or attachment; some participants may have genuine admiration for motorbikes, as well as mechanical skills, which surface on the first encounter with motorbikes. Other participants are inducted to the world of motorcycles by a highly admired figure.
G “I learned to use the clutch from a mechanic where I used to live. I found many magazines about motorcycles as well and I was fascinated! I then knew I couldn’t live without it.”
Young adults who used to watch their parents ride bikes resisted their fathers’ – and inspirers’ – later efforts to persuade them not to buy or use their own. As children imitate their parents, they adopt some of their parents’ behavior. Through vicarious learning, interviewees describe how they used to see and feel about their father’s (or other significant figures’) fascination and enjoyment about motorcycles. The real attitude and example of the “inspirer” is stronger than any sermon. A father’s objection to riding has a double effect on sons: it provokes a rebellion against the restriction to enjoy riding the way the father himself used to (an effort to avoid emasculation) and feeds curiosity about the contradiction. Riding seems to be a “forbidden” yet intriguing and exciting activity.
G “Well, it wasn’t easy for my parents. My father had a serious fall a couple of years before so I had to fight really hard. But I won! He finally quit trying to persuade me not to buy my own bike…”
Of course, not everyone feels that attached to his motorbike. Some participants got used to riding for many other reasons other than attraction. They mainly appreciate the vehicle’s practical value and low cost efficiency as a means of daily urban commute.
M “I chose to ride […] No one in my family or friends ever had a bike. I just had to find a way to travel more than 150 kilometers per day for my job.”
B “Of course I do not enjoy traffic! This is why I chose to buy a bike. I need to know that if I get out on 5:00 pm I will be downtown by 6:00 pm.”
Nevertheless, most participants were happy about their “rider’s lifestyle,” given that they feel they belong to a special group. It seems the riders’ community present a strong inducement for many of them. It satisfies their need to belong and to identify themselves among skilled and admired individuals. Everyday riding practice guarantees that the rider is skilled enough to ride and this expands to the riders’ community (a kind of fraternity), reinforcing his identity and adding to one’s self esteem and satisfaction.
M “I like it when we go out for a ride with two or three of my friends. You know, people notice us as a team. They say ‘Oh look, there come three motorbikes…’ It is nice.”
G “When I see a rider, dressed up and ‘armed’ I feel like he is something like my brother… like we are the same in a way…”
L “I feel proud of the friends I made inside our riding group. I couldn’t imagine how many opportunities there were to have friends with whom you can ride around the country. We are like family.”
Driven either by their passion or the need to be on time and to save money, riders are mainly introduced to the motorbike world with a small engine motorcycle or a motor scooter. They gave themselves the chance and time to get used to riding in traffic and develop the skills needed for a safe ride. They gradually, though, decide to upgrade both their motorbike and their identity/image of self.
M “I started with a small scooter about 100cc. Then another 250cc and finally I got the perfect motorbike for me, a Suzuki DL650.”
M “First, I had a Honda CBF250; a rookie motorcycle. Then, I thought I was experienced enough to by a super-sport.”
As soon as one rides a big motorbike, he tends to feel more confident about himself, his skills, even his sex appeal. A bigger vehicle seems to meet best an experienced rider’s needs and self image while enhancing the feeling of freedom. Riders systematically pursue careers expressing knowledge and skills acquired through experience and constant improvement efforts. Seen from the serious leisure perspective, this pursuit offers a combination of self fulfillment and “superficial enjoyment” (Stebbins, 2009) by showing an amateur that an accepted challenge is successfully accomplished and he/she can move on to another more challenging state.
Bigger and stronger vehicles facilitate self-expression and identity, helping riders to demonstrate their status to others. Although social status was not among the factors that dictate motorbike choice, participants admitted that they wouldn’t choose several specific models evoking connotations of a certain lifestyle related to consumption that they do not prefer being associated with.
S “Then you get what characterizes you… I wouldn’t buy a TDM for example. I find it somehow immature as a motorbike.”
Summarizing, the identity of a biker is positive. The motorcycle works as a childhood and/or adolescent dream and ideal of playful strength, realized daily on the road. In addition, it allows the biker to be part of a distinctive community, which shares passion and love for freedom, manliness and other virtues on a level, both practical and imaginary. As riding entails full concentration and a unique skill set, self esteem is continuously supported and riders draw increasing satisfaction on the road. A common story is gradually built and the bond between a rider and his motorbike strengthens day by day. In terms of “serious edgework leisure,” bikers feel they belong, together with other daring individuals, to a special community with exceptional skills that help them excel and overcome any challenge and, at the end of the day, stay alive.
Thematic 2: Emotional management
The experience of riding entails certain basic emotions and feelings; joy, fear, anger, sadness.
The most recognizable positive feeling is joy; feeling free, powerful and unconstrained – even from driving regulations – due to the physical state of being on two wheels either as a lonely rider or as compared to car drivers. As a common remark riding is a “forbidden adult game” indicating an intense joyful emotional state. A typical expression of the “flow experience” is noticeable.
M “For me it’s like taking part in a sex party.”
Riders describe a feeling of self expansion when riding their bikes; an enhancement of their self esteem is combined with a feeling of wandering in upper, existential spheres…
G “I would describe it like my ultimate pleasure. I am so different when I ride. It’s like being in heaven…”
“Playing” on the edge of legality is another factor that invites riders to feel special. It is a way to achieve the supportive psychological state of group belonging while enforcing self image and identity. Living on the edge, provoking the laws of physics and society is exactly what makes riders feel special and eventually adds to joy and personal fulfillment.
K “I feel like a gangster; you know… like an outlaw…”
The aforementioned perceptions of riding allow us to conclude that riders draw satisfaction through their deep and complex personal interpretations of the particular activity. At this point, edgework can be deployed to help us understand why riders choose to engage in an indisputably dangerous activity. Apart from the sense of being on the edge of legality, riding is a characteristic edgework activity as it forces the rider to clear his/her mind of anything but the factors that will make the difference between life and death. By becoming one with their bikes, they enjoy being in full control of their minds and the machine’s capabilities, having the impression of calculating all the parameters and leaving nothing to chance. Feeling unique and at the same time daring and unconventional adds up to their self esteem supporting an overall satisfactory experience.
However, riding is not without negative emotions. Despite the playful attitude that many riders admit, they also keep in mind that balancing on two wheels, maneuvering between vehicles and road obstacles, even predicting usually unpredictable moves, can be fatal if defied. Fear is constantly present. In particular, fear of other drivers’ actions is a major concern. Unpredicted moves and the general threat of the unexpected take over riders and keep them alert.
M “Greeks’ driving habits are so bad that you can’t be sure about anything […]”
G “I am always afraid… I am vulnerable and at the same time I ride between too many people… Who know what they will do next?”
Having internalized images of crushes, having a friend or relative seriously injured or even dead, are noticeable triggers of fear. Sometimes, having witnessed a car accident, even if there is no motorcycle involved, the image of injury is recorded in the subconscious and makes them hesitant.
B “Well you might be driving on the highway and there it is; an ambulance, two or three police cars and a guy on the floor.”
M “As we all know, motorcycle accidents have casualties. Personally, I have lost two of my friends in such accidents.”
Maturity also leads to feelings of unease. The older a rider gets the more suspicious and cautious he is. Most of our participants admit that as teenagers they used to drive more aggressively and less carefully. As they acquire experience and hone their skills, bikers gain pride for just staying safe against the “bias of invulnerability.”
M “Psychologically… you ride like this to show off… I did it for me, mostly. But now I am more conservative.”
G “Some years ago I thought I was untouchable. You know, like I would fall and then get up again like a super hero. Then I started feeling more responsible… for me and others.”
Another reason for the presence of fear is the intense effort of relatives and significant others to persuade someone not to ride a bike. Many participants were familiar with upsetting incidents on the road well before they ever got on a bike. Social pressure and the narration of catastrophic stories provoke ultimate fear.
M “I will never forget my father taking me to the hospital when I asked for a bike. ‘All these children asked for a bike and said they would be careful,’ he said…”
G “A friend of mine once told me: ‘You know, we don’t have priority even with a green light'”
Furthermore, weather conditions, an unpredictable factor that frightens riders, cannot be controlled either. Riding in rainy weather or extreme cold affects traction and reaction time and riders are always concerned about that.
L “Riding in rain is uncomfortable. I am a little scared as well”
Lastly, riding with another passenger also contributes in maximum awareness and increased feeling of fear. Participants argue that feeling responsible for a life other than their own makes them reconsider their attitude, minimize maneuvers and adapt speed to desired and safe levels. We could say that they are afraid not only for themselves but for others as well, in this case their co-rider.
B “Well it changes everything. I observe more, I do not accelerate, I reduce my speed… I am responsible for another guy… If I fall it is my problem, but what if we fall together?”
To overcome fear, riders use various “techniques,” practical and/or psychological. To resist negative thinking, riders choose the best equipment and – most of them – use it all the time with no exceptions. They are aware that this is not an absolute safeness guarantee; however, as a conscious choice, it increases their sense of control and makes them feel more comfortable.
G “I feel safer. Plus, wearing a helmet helps you listen better to most of the sounds from the environment.”
M “I have spent a fortune on my equipment. It feels much better wearing it. In fact, I cannot ride without wearing it.”
Wearing proper gear or not, a plethora of stimuli on the road can provoke physical reactions such as increase of heartbeat and breathing rate, sweat, as well as tension to grips and controls (fortunately with temporary effects). Fear, as a bad “advisor,” can be more dangerous than one could imagine. As an emotion, it blurs judgment and leads to inappropriate automated reactions.
L “I always slam on the brakes. I know it is not the best reaction but I cannot control it every time.”
G “I remember I once failed to avoid an accident… I slammed on my brakes and the front wheel locked. I could have done much better if I was calm…”
Knowing that in order to remain calm and preserve clear judgment they have to be as unstressed as possible, riders choose to begin their journey ahead of schedule. They admit that when they ride for fun, having no appointments to make or no other concerns, they are more concentrated and focused.
B “When I know I am going to be late I usually speed up or cut corners. But when it is possible I choose to be calm and have plenty of time ahead.”
Finally, in cases of overwhelming fear after a fall, quitting riding is not common among motorcyclists. However, some riders may be shocked and choose to refrain from riding for a short period of time.
G “I had been driving only my car for a while as I wanted to feel safer. I was really scared that day (of the incident). But eventually I had to ride again. Both for my work and my pleasure… I guess I just had enough of my car at the end…”
Anger is the second and most often mentioned negative feeling. All participants state that they have ridden their motorbikes when angry or felt anger during the ride, so they are aware of how anger affects behavior. as an unpleasant feeling, anger “increases one’s taste for various types of aggressive actions” (Loewenstein, 1996, 273). If one is angry prior to riding or gets upset due to an incident, his driving attitude can alter dramatically with the simultaneous reduction of alertness (Deffenbacher, Oetting & Lynch,1994; Sullman, 2006). In addition, a common expression of anger is aggressive and dangerous driving behavior and the reduced tolerance to others.
M “If I am angry I may not notice things that I usually do.”
S “If you are angry before you ride there are many more details that can agitate you. You may act in a more extreme way.”
Some of the participants admit that they use their bike as a “decompression valve.” It is widely known that driving can act as such because drivers have to focus on many other things except their thoughts. The aforementioned riders belong to those who find riding exciting and sometimes they use it as an outlet to express negative feelings, especially anger.
L “It is something that calms me…”
They are aware of how dangerous this practice can be, but at the time they are unable to assess this properly. However, they somehow manage to focus on what is really important for their physical well-being at the time. All those parameters that they have to calculate, all their mind power is focused on the only things that matter in order to stay safe while letting the steam out.
B “Something had happened and I was really frustrated… I took my bike and got on the highway where I speeded up more and more… I felt like I was so powerful at the time. It was really dangerous after all, of course.”
Riders don’t have to come close to an accident in order to become enraged. Simpler, yet frustrating, stimuli are enough. The most commonly mentioned trigger of anger for riders is when drivers ignore traffic rules, especially when their behavior is blatant, sudden, not followed by an apology, and threatens their “vital space.” Such incidents can be fatal for the rider himself, they constitute flagrant violations of justice in “road control” and of symbolic capital distribution and management; a perceived “threat” for the rider to “loose face” on the road. Participants admit that their perceived vulnerability combined with the indifference of fellow road users, especially for the unprotected and most vulnerable ones (as riders), is an ethical problem and enough to generate rage.
M “It is like in the jungle; nobody cares. There is total anarchy.”
L “Many drivers get in front of a bike not knowing how difficult and dangerous this can be for a cyclist. They simply don’t care…”
When a rider perceives another vehicle’s action as threatening to his physical well-being (or his “symbolic rights” on the road), he develops reactions of increased aggressiveness. These reactions, verbal or physical, serve as a kind of “revenge” towards the other driver or his/her vehicle. We should not interpret this as a sign of the offended person’s “aggressive character” (as a stable personality trait), but as a “situational” reaction to what is perceived as a purposefully or not dangerous or aggressive action of the offender. However, the later is perceived by the offended as an aggressive person according to the “fundamental attribution error;” the general tendency to attribute each behavior more to stable traits of a person than to situational factors (Heider, 1958).
M “When I see that he doesn’t respect my life… and he doesn’t give a damn armored inside his “box” equipped with a dozen of airbags, yes. I am outraged!”
L “I wanted to kick at his mirror! It’s the only way he could understand! The other day, one ignored a stop sign and almost hit me. I chased him and then we had a really bad fight.”
Even the repetition of such behaviors happening to the rider himself or other users of the road accumulates frustration and, over time, riders seem to be more sensitive and “prepared” to get angry. In a way, riders force themselves to be outraged even if there is no profound reason for such a reaction. Many riders systematically see a latent pattern in some behaviors that can be increasingly irritating. In fact, a non driving factor (such as the type of encountered vehicle and the rider’s stereotype about it) produces a self-fulfilling prophecy.
B “We all hate taxi drivers… as soon as you see one you know something will go wrong.”
Some participants (perhaps trying to present a more positive image to the interviewer) state that they try to manage their anger and to react reasonably. Being aware of the dangerous consequences of rage they choose to withdraw and internalize their emotions.
M “I clearly don’t see how this can be good for you… you managed to stay safe the first time… just thank God and go on… you don’t need to provoke more harm…”
L “I won’t bother much… I may swear inside my helmet but that’s it…”
Another restraining factor that prevents riders becoming embroiled is that they want to maintain a positive public image.
M “I try to be more polite when near my job. You never know who sees what…”
Participants present their provocative behaviors as limited and controlled. However, there are exceptions in their effort to manage aggressive reactions. “Justice” must be established on the road; riders can be either disappointed or outraged if their offered chance for apology is arrogantly refused by the offender and “ritual balance” is not restored.
M “I can easily control myself… but I can also get mad if the other insists that he hasn’t done anything wrong when he clearly has!”
S “His response was enough to drive me mad! He said “I didn’t even touch you!” He should say “I’m really sorry, are you ok?”
Riders insist that they do not use the power or the aggressive sound coming from their bikes to show off. Noisy driving is not necessarily linked to an aggressive (especially in adolescence) personality. Instead, they use the “power of sound” in an effort to warn others and make their presence known trying to avoid unpleasant results. Noise is considered to be part of the effort to make his/her presence noticed, his/her opinions heard (Malone, 2016) and it is common among riders to use it in order to feel safer by warning others of their presence.
S “If someone shifts lanes and hasn’t seen me, I will step on the gas for him to notice me.”
F “Not for my ‘relief,’ to show them how powerful I am, but as a warning. They need to know I’m coming…”
In the aftermath of an accident, given that the rider is still safe and able to communicate, the rider makes a re-assessment of both the situation and his emotional state; relief is the fundamental feeling that overcomes aggressive manifestations.
G “I didn’t get mad. I was fine after all and that is all that mattered for me then.”
G “Two cars approached me really close and I fell. They stopped, said they were sorry, I was fine and we split.”
While not often mentioned, sometimes sadness is a feeling responsible for careless driving (Lerner, Li, Valdesolo & Kassam, 2015), as it is considered to intervene in the decision-making procedure. Sadness is a diffused feeling that may have as many sources as results. Most riders recognize their emotional state and choose not to ride when being sad or feeling depressed.
M “You are on your own… you get even more emotional.”
G “If I ride when I am sad I don’t enjoy it. Everything changes, mainly my reactions…”
Some participants stated that they find comfort in riding in an effort to deal with their sadness (same as they do in order to feel relief when angry).
G “If I am sad then I might ride… Sometimes it makes me forget about all my troubles.”
The motorcycle is an a priori object of admiration and attraction due to what it promises on a practical and symbolic level. Sometimes, significant others (such as a father who is also a rider) maximize the attraction establishing a field of belonging and identity.
The induction to the world of bikes, strongly related to the identity process, requires a persistent claim of the motorcycle as an object, as a demanding symbol of unlimited freedom/autonomy/personal power, and a set of practical/physical riding skills combined with a unique capability for self-control/emotional management, both necessary to physically and socially survive on the road. The road (especially in urban, bad traffic environments) is in fact a field of formal and informal restrictions and more or less regulated interactions and negotiations. It is an area of projection for social fantasies (power, skills, wealth, competition all around…), but also for the need for control, in a way that allows a minimum of trust and predictability required to achieve coexistence; eventually, it is a place of reality check for the desire under the presence of the Other, while the individual and the social collide with each other in a dynamic movement of mutual assembly.
Furthermore, emotions, both positive and/or negative must be constantly processed and managed on multiple levels; a technical level, regarding information processing and driving decision making, and a social/symbolic level, concerning exchanges and competitive or antagonistic relations with other persons on the road. With time and experience a biker learns that the joy, playfulness and excitement derived from the sensation of freedom on the two wheels, as well as fear (as an emotional state that challenges freedom) must be tamed. Taming fear and anger and other potentially “blocking” emotions are one of the most vital skills that edgeworkers, such as riders, have to develop. It is the “right stuff” (Lyng, 1990) they need to have in order to remain intact, survive the challenge and to be able to do it again and again, gaining more experience, self-confidence and, so believed, control over numerous parameters.
In addition, anger is a major emotional challenge for the biker in cases of various types of violation including his vital space and his life safety – the symbolic and the physical are inseparable here. Uncontrolled anger is experienced as a chaotic outburst, as a result of the perceived menace of “losing his face,” and as a threat against his physical integrity/life. Since motorcyclists feel more vulnerable than car drivers, they tend to perceive any action that seems to ignore their presence on the road as an unfair and unethical offence. Potentially, this common space, such as any “social body” (theoretically a dominium of mutual trust between individual riders and drivers), evokes for the – already solitary – rider a difficulty to coexist and a sense of (relatively delusional) threat. At a fundamental level, through the constant underlying rage (a mental/emotional state potentially leading to anger), as well as the practical and social necessity to control it, the biker is brought face to face with the possibility of alienation. His moral and existential integrity is adherent to the preservation of contact with oneself and the Other.
A paradox is revealed. The social imaginary represents the motorbike as a means of pleasure (“jouissance”). However, by default the road generates unpredictable constraints and disturbances. By promising liberation from heteronomy, the motorbike offers socialization educating the biker to learn control and discipline. The crucial moment of survival after an accident (as already highlighted and analyzed), is the critical occasion for a biker to test his “balance” skills between unlimited freedom and self control, something that mirrors his capacity for emotional management. This is the point to question the existence of basic emotions (e.g. fear, anger) per se, since, exactly when escaping a major risk, the survivor’s identification and expression of emotions are deconstructed momentarily leaving him relieved, sober and conscious.
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[Fig.1] Photograph courtesy of Michael Lichter (www.lichterphoto.com) with image editing and treatment by Tim Fransen. Special thanks to Sean Lichter (model), Shannon Kerr (Studio Assistant) and Dave Przgocki for their time, effort and support.
Kimonas Konstantelos MA Communication
Nicolas Christakis Professor in Social Psychology
Laboratory of Psychological Applications and Planning,
Department of Communication and Media Studies,
National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece.