Loud Bumpers

Humans express social status in many ways.  We show our submission to others by deferring to their wishes, copying their styles (e.g., dress, speech), praising them, laughing at their jokes, and so on.  We show our dominance by expressing desires, styles, jokes, etc. and then expecting others to show submission. 

Our opinions are part of this dominance/submission signaling system.  The higher we feel in status the more we feel free to express distinctive opinions and expect others to agree, or at least not greatly disagree.  Which is why we are so reluctant to agree with others we compete with, even when they make good points.

A vivid illustration from yesterday’s Post

Drivers of cars with bumper stickers, window decals, personalized license plates and other "territorial markers" not only get mad when someone cuts in their lane or is slow to respond to a changed traffic light, but they are far more likely than those who do not personalize their cars to use their vehicles to express rage — by honking, tailgating and other aggressive behavior.

It does not seem to matter whether the messages on the stickers are about peace and love — "Visualize World Peace," "My Kid Is an Honor Student" — or angry and in your face — "Don’t Mess With Texas," "My Kid Beat Up Your Honor Student." … Aggressive driving might be responsible for up to two-thirds of all U.S. traffic accidents that involve injuries. … Drivers who do not personalize their cars get angry, too, … but they don’t act out their anger. ….

Drivers who individualize their cars using bumper stickers, window decals and personalized license plates, the researchers hypothesized, see their cars in the same way as they see their homes and bedrooms — as deeply personal space, or primary territory.

Added:  As an analogy consider the strut.  It is clearly a dominance signal, even though the rich may strut less than the poor.  And if people around you think your strut is reaching above your status, they may severely punish you.

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  • Robin,
    Thanks for sharing this. Here the good advice seems to leap from the quoted text: avoid driving in front of people with territorial markers on their car.

  • In my observation, it’s often cars that seem to belong to people of _lower_ social status that are packed with bumper stickers (and have vanity plates), while Lexuses, Lincolns, Jaquars and the like seem to be usually sticker-free. If my observation is correct, then I’m not sure how status explains things. It seems to me it’s those lower in status (the ones with bumper stickers) who are expressing distinctive opinions and expecting others to agree, while those of higher status don’t feel the need to signal their status in this way ?

  • Alan


    The idea of a vehicle as an enlargement of personal space makes perfect sense. Some pleasant people who run a local CSA have two stickers on their car: one states COEXIST, spelled out using various symbols of major world religions, and the other states, God Bless Everyone in the World, No exceptions. It would be interesting to know something of their driving habits, which I do not. Based on the content of those two stickers, I would conjecture that they are not aggressive drivers, but in light of this post, that assumption is now open to question.

  • KSE


    Would you mind elaborating on what you mean by “submission” in the context of this sentence: “We show our submission to others by deferring to their wishes, copying their styles (e.g., dress, speech), praising them, laughing at their jokes, and so on.” In what sense is praising our children or laughing at something that is funny a signal of submission? Similarly, while I can see how copying someone else’s style instead of developing one’s own is in some sense a subordination of one’s own creativity to someone else’s genius, there are instances in which mimicry (in terms of appropriating imagery that has cultural cache) is actually a way of increasing one’s own power and stature (Mussolini’s widespread use of Roman imagery springs to mind). In what sense is this “submission”?

  • Doug S.

    When you work for Dr. Evil and he tells a joke, you laugh, even if the joke is bad, because you don’t want to make him angry. It’s not so much “submission” as “sucking up”, but they are similar.

  • Schizo

    M Wms,

    People of higher status are often unwilling to put stickers on their cars because it makes them seem trashy and taints the immaculate surface of their cars.

  • Silas

    Another way to make a car loud is to, er, be … loud. Like, play loud bass music. Is there any connection between this and signaling? i.e., would that credibly signal dominance to females. If so … well, given that I hate such cars, that just ads insult to injury.

    About the “why no stickers on Lexuses?”, it could just be a case of the three-tiered dominance system:

    -people that are so high they don’t need to signal
    -people that are lower and signal what they do have
    -people at the bottom with nothing to signal

    But then, if you don’t need to signal, what’s the point of a Lexus…

  • Alan Gunn

    Isn’t there a recent study showing that the results of most studies are wrong?

  • Unfortunately status and dominance signals are complex, multi-dimensional, and context dependent. That makes them harder to study, but no less real.

  • E. S.

    I don’t think I buy the signalling explanation — when I see bumper stickers I certainly don’t associate it with high status. To me the simplest explanation would seem to be that both bumper stickers and road rage are correlated with high levels of narcissism.

  • kiki

    I’d like to agree with you, but I feel compelled to disagree. Just kidding, great post!…

    Academic administrators, Government bureaucrats and company executives often talk of needing to get “buy in” and “ownership”. Why do rational people need to “buy in” or “own” things…..isn’t the data enough?

  • Marc Geddes

    It’s virtually *all* social signalling Robin, the whole human shebang. The reasoning ability of most of the population is virtually non-existant any way; so-called ‘arguments’ are really just being used as a social device most of the time – that is to say – it appears to me that people are not usually interested in the content of logical arguments – only in the social effects and as a way of establishing in/out groups, relative staus etc.

    Depressing isn’t it? Why do you think virtually no one is working on advanced transhumanist topics? Answer: Because there’s no social reward. (of course, now that transhumanist ideas are getting more popular, you have some people professing a ‘sudden’ interest as funding and job openings become avaliable.) My horrific realization is that most people’s time is taken up with social signalling. Human nature really is even more sordid than the worst fears of my youth I’m afraid.

    In the words of ‘Battle Star Galactica’ :

    ‘Somebody get me off this fracking planet!’

  • Abigail

    Do you believe that any pair or group of people might consider themselves to be equal?

    What of a team, where each defers to each other in that other’s sphere of expertise?

    Might people cease to seek to establish dominance where they do not find any payoff?

  • David J. Balan

    It seems like the “dominance” thing and the “extension of personal space” thing might be distinct from each other.