Individuals with a history of dangerous driving show relatively less activation in brain areas associated with social cognition and empathy compared to their safe-driving counterparts, according to new research published in the journal NeuroImage.
Psychological scientists in the Czech Republic monitored the brain activity of both good and bad drivers as they watched videos on traffic safety. The goal was to understand why some of us ignore the rules, putting others at risk of serious injury or death, while the rest of us abide by them.
“We use driving as an index of social behavior, assuming that more pro-social individuals will drive in a manner that is safe and consistent with road regulations, whereas anti-social individuals will drive more dangerously without consideration for others,” wrote lead author Jana Zelinková of the Central European Institute of Technology and colleagues.
Traffic safety campaigns often appeal to our sense of empathy by highlighting the risks that bad driving can bring upon others. For this study, the researchers showed groups of drivers a series of public safety videos designed to elicit empathic and compassionate reactions towards the victims of various road-traffic accidents.
The researchers hypothesized that dangerous drivers and safe drivers might exhibit different brain activity in response to videos showing the tragic consequences of risky driving.
Specifically, they assumed that rule-abiding drivers would show more significant activation in the superior temporal sulcus (STS), a region of the brain associated with facial recognition, empathy, and our ability to imagine the mental states of other people.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers compared brain activity in the STS between a group of 25 male drivers with no history of traffic violations or accidents and a group of 19 male drivers who had at least one instance of a traffic violation on record, such as driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs or speeding.
While undergoing the fMRI, all participants viewed a series of 12 short video clips of various driving scenarios in random order.
Six of the video clips showed the catastrophic consequences of traffic accidents (such as resuscitation and death), that resulted from a variety of dangerous driving behaviors, including speeding or drunk driving.
The other six clips were neutral control videos showing scenes of normal driving from car advertisements. Safe drivers showed greater STS activation than did dangerous drivers in response to the disturbing traffic safety videos.
Finally, participants re-watched all of the videos and were asked to verbally describe and evaluate each video clip. The researchers then evaluated each verbal description for empathy and affect. They found that subjects who were more focused on the consequences of actions of characters in the video also showed more activation of the STS brain region.
“In this light, greater STS activity indexes a greater interest in others rather than a self-focus,” the researchers conclude. “In other words, we suggest that dangerous drivers are less considerate of others in the situations comprising the videos.”