The Honking Experiment: Can You Predict Your Driving Behaviour?

If the car in front pauses when the lights turn green, do you honk and does it depend on the price of the car?

If the car in front pauses when the lights turn green, do you honk and does it depend on the price of the car?

Last week I asked you the following question:

Say you’re in your car, sitting at a red light behind another car. The lights turn green but the car in front doesn’t move. Twelve seconds go by. Do you think you’d be more likely to honk if the car was an old Ford or if it was a brand new Porsche?

Over the weekend 1,313 people took part and the results were clear-cut. Here’s what you said: 781 people thought they’d be more likely to honk at the high-status car and 532 said it would be the low-status car.

Statistically this is a significant difference which means we wouldn’t expect to get these results by chance, so it probably means there’s something going on here.

Now let’s look at the breakdowns by gender:

  • Men, high-status: 408
  • Men, low-status: 331
  • Women, high-status: 373
  • Women, low-status: 201

So the pattern is the same across men and women, although stronger for women (again differences within genders are significant).

For real

This is just the result I was expecting as when participants were asked this question by Doob and Gross (1968), they got a similar result. More people thought they would honk at the high-status car.

The difference is that Doob and Gross carried out the experiment for real. As well as asking, they wanted to see what people would really do in the situation. They had drivers pausing at intersections in either expensive or cheap cars and waiting to see if the person behind honked.

Overall what they found was that when the car was low-status, 84% of drivers honked at least once within 12 seconds. But, when the car was high-status, only 50% of drivers honked. Indeed people honked faster and more often at the low-status car. These results were also replicated in a later study (Deaux, 1971).

So, in reality people’s collective tendency was the exact reverse of their prediction and also what PsyBlog readers predicted.


The explanation for why people honk less at high-status cars is simple.

It’s the same reason you don’t tell your boss what you really think: unconsciously (or otherwise) we fear what high status people can do to us. We may be frustrated by the car in front pausing at the lights, but that frustration is inhibited by any signals that the car’s driver is high-status.

Status is just one example of how our aggressive behaviour is curbed by aspects of the situation. For example people are generally less aggressive towards polite people and more aggressive towards members of their own sex (Harris, 1974).

So, how do you explain people’s inaccurate prediction? Perhaps we like to think we’re not cowed by authority, that people who are richer have no effect on us and so we compensate too much. On the other hand maybe we feel more affiliation with the driver of the cheaper car—they are more like us.

Whatever the explanation, it’s a good example of how our predictions of our own behaviour can be biased in the wrong direction. It’s also a good example of when crowds are not so wise.

Image credit: D. Sharon Pruitt

Author: Dr Jeremy Dean

Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology. He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004.

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