Back when I used to commute to San Francisco for work, there seemed to be no escaping them: Couples taking up the entire width of the escalator instead of leaving room on the left for walkers. Tourists blocking the sidewalk to snap photos. Other pedestrians slowly meandering along, absorbed in their phones. Often forced to stop or shuffle behind them, I would seethe silently. Hello? It’s rush hour. SOME people actually have somewhere to go.
If you live or work in a crowded city, you can probably relate. In fact, the prevalence of anger toward slow walkers has earned it a special label from some researchers: sidewalk rage. Think of it as the pedestrian version of road rage. It can involve inward fuming over irrational assumptions about other pedestrians-or even violent fantasies about them-which could lead to hostility and aggression, says Leon James, a psychology professor at the University of Hawaiʻi at Manoa’s College of Social Sciences and leading scholar of sidewalk rage.
James explains that pedestrians not only move through physical space, but also “social space,” which consists of socially acceptable and unacceptable routes. “When walkers suddenly stop as they seem mesmerized by their tiny mobile device, they are violating normative paths that compels nearby pedestrians in both directions to negotiate their way around them.”
This is consistent with our understanding of what triggers anger: “a violation of something that ought to be,” says Zlatan Krizan, a professor of psychology at Iowa State University-for instance, that other pedestrians ought to make room for you to pass them. The idea is that these violations prevent you from reaching your goals, whether it’s getting to the office on time or grabbing lunch to soothe your hunger pangs.
Anger “creates a laser-like focus” that boosts your motivation to achieve those goals, says Stephanie Preston, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. “When you’re in that zone, you’re not thinking about other people or why they might be going slowly”-whether it’s because they’re elderly, for example, or enjoying a leisurely stroll. “They are simply seen as barriers to one’s goal.”
Those more likely to experience sidewalk rage, and anger issues in general, have a few key traits in common. For starters, “there’s a sense of entitlement and privilege that the person in front of them is presenting an obstacle or inconvenience,” says Darald Hanusa, a senior lecturer in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Social Work and a therapist in private practice at Midwest Center for Human Services in Madison. And in fact, research has shown an association between narcissism and aggression.
People who struggle with anger also often “dichotomize the world into good versus evil” and spin a narrative in which they cast themselves as the victims, Hanusa says. They may think, “If you’re in my way, then you deserve to be treated badly because you’re an evil person.” Indeed, several studies have documented an association between aggression and a tendency to interpret others’ intentions as hostile. Those who get peeved at slow walkers may think, “‘They’re even trying to frustrate and annoy me’ instead of interpreting it as ‘People are just unaware and distracted,’” says Jesse Cougle, an associate professor of psychology at Florida State University.
Folks who hold this good-versus-evil view of the world are more likely to actually act on their anger, Hanusa says. After all, seeing slow walkers as “evil” makes it easier to justify hostility or aggression toward them. Those who subscribe to beliefs that endorse dominating others, like “the ends justify the means” (which implies that aggression is ok if it gets you what you want) are also prone to lashing out.
Ongoing research by Howard Kassinove, a professor of psychology, and Thomas DiBlasi, a doctoral student in clinical psychology, both at Hofstra University, also shows that people who score high on anger tend to score high on a personality trait called neuroticism (neurotic people tend to struggle with regulating their emotions) and low on agreeableness, conscientiousness and openness.
This research, along with an earlier study, also found that thoughts related to “demandingness,” or setting rigid expectations, were the ones most often reported in angry episodes. Unrealistic expectations (say, that everyone should match your pace) can lead to impatience, and in turn, anger, Krizan says. It goes back to the idea that people get frustrated when blocked from reaching a goal; setting such expectations makes it harder for them to do so.
There are cultural factors at play, too. Western culture values power so highly that if you lack it (like when you’re stuck behind a herd of tourists), you’ll want to find a way to get it, Hanusa says. DiBlasi adds that “coastal American competition” may also be partly to blame. His clients who complain about slow walkers tend to come from New York City and other fast-paced coastal areas, where “anytime you’re not ahead, there’s an idea that you’re falling behind.”
On top of that, the digital era has wired our motivational systems to expect immediacy, Preston says. Instant gratification, like you might experience from receiving a reply to a text seconds after sending it, can release a surge of dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in reward. Dopamine plummets, though, at the moment when you expect a reply, but still haven’t received it. “If you’re expecting everything to be instantaneous, anything that’s not is seen as a failure.”
Preston adds that, along with this expectation of immediacy, other aspects of modern life have combined to create “a perfect storm” for sidewalk rage. Its fast pace heightens expectations for productivity, often leading people to pack their schedules. More foot and vehicle traffic make it hard to walk directly to your destination at the speed you want. Not only that, you’re walking alongside strangers, with no knowledge of their needs or problems, and who you may never see again, so you have no incentive to be nice to them. Those strangers, in turn, may come from other regions with different, sometimes clashing, norms of how to behave in public spaces.
To be sure, it’s understandable to feel frustrated under such conditions, and anger isn’t inherently a bad thing. It’s worth addressing, though, if you’re getting into altercations or drawing reactions that could escalate into altercations, says Raymond DiGiuseppe, a professor of psychology at St. John’s University. “Maybe you say nasty things, or you cut [people] off.” Even if you don’t act on your anger, it can be a problem if it interferes with your daily life and overall well-being-if it takes up a significant part of your day, leaves you feeling drained, or if you continue ruminating about the incident that triggered it, the experts we interviewed said.
The good thing is, you can take proactive steps to manage sidewalk rage. The experts we spoke to recommend avoiding getting angry in the first place by planning ahead, whether it’s setting your alarm earlier or taking a different route. DiBlasi also suggests coming up with a coping statement, or a true statement that counters your demandingness, ahead of time, such as “I can’t control this person. This person is going to walk at the speed they want to walk. I can’t tell them how to live their life.” Practice repeating it to yourself while engaging in deep breathing, so you can readily do the same thing the next time you encounter a sidewalk dawdler.
You could also practice perspective-taking. If you notice yourself concocting a theory of how every pedestrian woke up this morning hell-bent on screwing you over, stop to ask yourself, “Are they really doing this on purpose… all these people who don’t even know you?” DiGiuseppe says. Krizan suggests “zooming out of your current reality” and asking yourself how much this moment matters to the rest of your day.
Maybe even treat the extra time as an opportunity to enjoy the scenery or reflect on a project you’re working on. And if you’re running late? Remind yourself that “it’s not the end of the world,” DiGiuseppe says. “I’ll survive, even.”
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