This is an article from the fall 2019 issue of LSA Magazine. Read more stories from the magazine.

People may disagree about a lot of things, but most of us are unified by a hatred of the slow. Slow WIFI, slow grocery lines, and slow drivers in the fast lane all have an uncanny ability to turn an ordinary afternoon into a frustrating one. LSA Professor of Psychology Stephanie Preston, whose lab researches the way emotions affect our well-being and encourage us to help others, says episodes of outsized fury such as sidewalk rage can teach us a lot about our better selves because they bring out our worst. 

“Sidewalk rage is an example of the social bonds between people breaking down,” she says. “These feelings are usually unleashed on a stranger on the street, and it’s usually because we’re already stressed and running behind. All of the cues we naturally use to be empathic and connect to others in a positive way are missing.” In order to understand why rage takes over, Preston says we should begin with the brain. 

Way back in our evolutionary history, humans developed the hypothalamus, an area of the brain about the size of an almond located down near the pituitary gland. The hypothalamus oversees essential bodily functions, such as regulating temperature, appetite, and sleep. It’s also responsible for some of our strongest feelings, like rage. 

All-out emotional responses like rage were essential to our survival because they helped us defend ourselves against predators and other threats. “The hypothalamus is the source of our most innate behaviors, the kinds of things you want to happen almost reflexively,” Preston says. We’re eons away from those early automatic responses, but now the digital age has rewired the circuits in our brains into nearly reflexive responses because technology has changed the way we perceive time.

And that, Preston says, can make it harder to be generous and easier to blow a fuse.

Not So Fast

The neural structure in the middle of our brains is keenly tuned to things we find rewarding and one piece of processing a reward is time. The period of time between anticipating a reward and receiving it once served an evolutionary purpose. If our ancestors expended too many calories on the hunt or walked too far to find food, their internal clocks made them impatient, which told them to move on. 

When your phone pings because someone likes your photo, Preston says, the reward — and response — are immediate. This abbreviates the period of time we think a reward should take. And now that we spend our days sending texts, answering emails, and ticking off our virtual tasks as we do everything else, that accelerated perception of time has spread into the rest of our lives. When you encounter the slowpoke standing in the walk lane of the moving sidewalk, it throws off your expectation of how long the walk should take and arouses your impatience. And if your evening already includes a trip to the store before you pick up the kids from day care and preparing for a big meeting after you put them to bed, encountering a clueless lollygagger who’s obstructing your path can sometimes be enough to trigger a sense of rage.

Something of the Kind

In her Ecological Neuroscience Lab, Preston studies the mechanisms in our brains that “unfold automatically — as if your brain is making calculations all on its own based on the cues given, with no rationalizing or meditating.” Though episodes of sidewalk rage feel automatic, research has shown that they’re not entirely. Sidewalk rage is revealing, Preston says, because it requires specific conditions. “Because the person who is the target of your rage is a stranger, there are no cues like social hierarchy, so there’s no reason to keep yourself in check,” Preston says. “When you’re in an unfamiliar neighborhood where you feel out of place, you’re less likely to rage at a stranger.” Conversely, when you’re in an environment where you feel comfortable, you’re more likely to feel like you have a license to vent. 

But our ancestors weren’t only developing the capacity to rage when they developed that part of their brain. The hypothalamus also has regions that encourage something that’s pretty close to that feeling’s opposite — altruism. “I don’t like to use the word hardwired,” Preston says, “but there are mechanisms that cause us to be highly motivated to help others and be emotionally affected by others’ emotions and distress, even to a degree we would call heroic. These neural systems are shared across species, in rodents and monkeys and, of course, in humans. The exact same brain areas in all of these animals promote this emotional response to need.” 

In identifying the conditions necessary for sidewalk rage, the ways to encourage people to be kind and generous become clearer too. Our altruistic inclinations are bolstered by familiarity, a felt similarity, and common goals, Preston says. We’re also more inclined to assist someone who we see as vulnerable — especially when we feel competent enough to help. 

One solution to problems like sidewalk rage might be found if people could save themselves from the toll their outbursts take, Preston says. “If you raise your blood pressure for hours a day while you fight traffic or walk city streets, it’s going to have an impact on your health,” she says. If, instead, we can cultivate the conditions that inspire us to be kinder to others, we might end up being kinder to ourselves, too. 



Illustrations by James Anderson