The more stop signs a road has, the more likely drivers are to violate them.

That’s a publisher’s factoid from Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us). Yet another pop social science book, it is - so far from my reading - a breezy but genuinely interesting read. More interesting than engineers’ and psychologists’ insight into why traffic jams form are the lessons these insights can provide for other aspects of our lives.

Traffic book

Vanderbilt contrasts the interaction of pedestrians on a crowded sidewalk and that of drivers in a crowded road. As pedestrians we move quickly, gingerly coordinating our movements so as not to bump into each other. We sense personal space and make eye contact. Once in our cars we approach the other cars on the road like, well, other cars, and not as fellow drivers. Ensconced in our little bubbles of metal and glass we are disembodied, and more importantly, all of the other drivers on the road are disembodied, impersonal machines.

This certainly affects how we treat other drivers and respond to their actions. But it says little about how we drive in general. Vanderbilt spends another section of the book talking about driver feedback. We don’t have any feedback when we drive! Without a passenger riding shotgun there is no one, save for the other drive giving the bird, to suggest that “You’re driving way too fast and too close to that other car.” It’s not that we don’t know that this is dangerous, but we’re not self aware. Self awareness quickly changes our behavior. Whether we’re face to face with other people or merely see ourselves in a mirror, we modify our behavior when we see ourselves or anticipate others seeing us. Which is to say we behave.

This isn’t a big surprise to anyone who has read or participated in internet forums or IRC channels. With anonymity and no reputation at stake there is nothing holding us back from unnecessarily mocking other users in a way we would never countenance in meatspace. We’re not self-aware. But what if you attach a name and a face to everything you say?

This is the secret to why social media networks work the way they do. Everything you say on that network is attached to your identity. This works to a degree even without a connection to your real life persona - the online persona has a reputation worth saving quite often - but when our online identities are connected to our real life identities we become self-aware of our interaction with other people.