In his latest book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell describes the Implicit Association Test (IAT) developed at Harvard. This test exposes hidden biases by having subjects respond quickly to word associations (check it out at http://www.implicit.harvard.edu/). Gladwell explores how people score on the Race IAT, which makes associations with African-Americans and Caucasians. Over 80 percent of those who’ve taken that test showed “pro-white associations,” and even half of African-Americans have done the same. This is not evidence of racism or self-hatred, but about the many messages we receive from our culture on a continuous basis. As Harvard psychologist Mahzarin Banaji is quoted: “You don’t choose to make positive associations with the dominant group, but you are required to. All around you, that group is being paired with good things. You open the newspaper and turn on the television, and you can’t escape it.”
I have argued that the culture-wide relationship between bicyclists and motorists is similar to that of Native Americans and Americans of European ancestry. Like Native Americans, we were here first, and got in the way of the automobile’s Manifest Destiny. We "dress funny," have strange customs, make motorists uncomfortable when we gather en masse, and are being moved into reservations (trails, bike lanes) “for our own good.”
The automobile industry spends over $13 billion dollars a year for advertising, and whether one argues that the purpose of such advertising is to promote auto use in general or just to push one brand over another is really beside the point; all auto ads support the attitude that car use is good, and that even more car use is better still. News reports on the 42,000 annual deaths and 2 million injuries, global warming, ground level ozone, and the myriad other ills generated by auto use are of little consequence compared to such an advertising onslaught.
Bicycling and bicyclists are more often than not portrayed in negative terms: risk-taker, sacrifice, jobless, car-less, discomfort, geek, tree-hugger, freeloader, obstruction, slow, casualty… And where is the multi-billion dollar ad campaign to promote cycling?
The IAT results imply that, even though we know consciously and intellectually that bicycling is a better activity (healthier, greener, cheaper, more sociable, less dangerous to others, inspiring, etc., etc.) than automobile use, we might still (collectively) tend to defer to motorists as superior members of society.
Gladwell points out that it is in spontaneous situations when these cultural biases most affect our behaviors. With a 4,000 lb. vehicle breathing down the back of your neck it’s too easy to give in and make way; to feel as if you are the interloper.
Well, change is coming. You may have seen the Region’s Bank ads that use bicycles as symbols of freedom and joy. Lance Armstrong was a huge boost, even though he was not a symbol of the everyday bicyclist (and Floyd Landis has unfortunately become a negative symbol; two steps forward, one step back). This morning the price of gas was $3.10 a gallon and there’s serious talk of $4.00 by next summer.
As always, I try to leave you with something you can do with this new knowledge. Unless you can afford to buy lots of television air time to promote bicycling, I suggest you figure out ways to block out the pro-auto voices that permeate the culture. If the title of this post seems too extreme an option, you could instead use the mantra made famous by Saturday Night Live character Stuart Smalley (portrayed by Al Franken) as you bike down the road:
“I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”