Do people really think cyclists are sub-human?

Cyclists – particularly those who’ve used certain social media channels in the last week – have been up in arms about a new piece of research doing the rounds.

As a cyclist myself, I couldn’t resist jumping in the metaphoric saddle and climbing the hill of driver psychology to try and understand how anyone could see any other road user as – to quote the headlines – less than human.

The research made that finding thanks to study participants being thrown a rating scale.

That scale is pretty confronting.

It adopts the infamous ‘March of Progress’ illustration showing Homo sapiens as the final evolutionary form of early hominids but replaces a gibbon-like mammal dragging its arms along the ground with a crawling insect.

In essence, the 563 respondents taking part in the study were asked how ‘human’ they perceive a cyclist to be.

This is the scale.

Insect-based ascent of man scale. The question in the survey that used this was: “Some people believe that people can vary in how human-like they seem. According to this view, some people seem highly evolved whereas others seem no different than lower animals. Using the image as a guide, [enter a value for] how evolved you consider the average cyclist to be”. Credit: Limb & Collyer, 2023.

Unsurprisingly, this research has been discussed within major cycling industry mastheads and the online community.

For sure, it’s a pretty confronting piece of research, but there’s more to it than simply painting drivers as Neanderthalic road warriors.

Dr Mark Limb is an urban planner at QUT’s Faculty of Engineering. He focuses on policy approaches to planning, design and active transport. He conducted the research with psychologist Sarah Collyer from Flinders University, expanding on previous studies into driver attitudes that drew similar despairing headlines four years ago.

Limb and Collyer found that when presented with an insect-human scale, the majority agreed a cyclist is 100% human. But about one in three respondents rated cyclists below the human maximum.

They also tested a hypothesis as to whether wearing a helmet would result in a person appearing less than human.

To evaluate this, participants were presented with images of a man and woman wearing various types of apparel: a generic image of the model wearing a plain t-shirt, then alternatives wearing a baseball cap, or a helmet, or a high-vis vest with no headwear. Two final images of a lycra-clad cyclist on the road were also used.

The results showed statistically significant differences in dehumanising attitudes towards cyclists. Based on attire, cyclists with no headwear were seen as the most human, followed by those wearing a cap, then those wearing a helmet. Cyclists wearing a safety vest with no headwear were seen as the least human among the modelled photos. The in-situ images of lycra’d road bikers were the least well-regarded overall.

That’s a concern, particularly in nations like Australia, where cycling infrastructure is less abundant and riders are usually required to share roads with motorists. Helmet laws are also compulsory, and cyclists are recommended to wear bright clothing to improve their visibility to drivers in vehicles.

Limb puts the results down to a form of ‘othering’ – where another person or group of people is viewed as somehow different or inferior to oneself,

“There’s a range of [reasons] why cyclists are often perceived as being less popular than other people: [drivers] being delayed… being held up, that kind of thing,” Limb tells Cosmos.

So the more that a person appears to be part of a group that others perceive as negative – such as by wearing a helmet or high-vis – the lower their estimation might be in the eyes of others.

“The more you associate yourself with that group, the more absurd you are, and therefore dehumanised,” Limb says.

“The more you overtly ‘dressed up’, the more different you appeared, the more likely you were to be considered less human.”

The researchers also noted that while more than 500 people participated in their study, their sample size wasn’t population representative: three-quarters were male (but account for 49% of Australia’s population), two-thirds aged 25-44 (compared to 36%) and a similar number had a household income of more than $80,000 (16%). So while the results are statistically significant, the researchers acknowledge these limitations of their study.

Professor mark limb.
Professor Mark Limb. Credit: QUT

But it isn’t just drivers

Perhaps these results won’t come as much of a surprise to cyclists. While I’m licensed, I’ve neglected to own a car for many years, favouring the two push-powered wheels over four as both a way to commute, as well as for competitive sport and exercise.

Many are in the same boat, but it seems not every cyclist is a saint, at least when it comes to empathy for fellow riders.

Limb and Collyer’s research considered the attitudes towards cyclists, based on a participant’s own bike riding habits. Among self-reported cyclists, about one in five had dehumanising attitudes towards their fellow two-wheelers.

Still, that’s nothing compared to the half of non-cyclists who view riders as less than fully human.

Collyer, a research associate at the Caring Futures Institute at Flinders University, was surprised at the vitriol that came through towards cyclists in written and scale-rating responses.

When speaking with her, I pointed out that it would seem, on the face of things, unusual for a normal, empathic human to rate a fellow person anything less than that, when presented the insect-human scale.

“I had the same thought exactly,” she says.

“Who would ever rate a person who is clearly human [anything less]? Every human being is equal… and I can’t imagine how anyone would blatantly say otherwise. But I guess surprisingly in the research that uses this scale and similar ‘ascent of man’ scales, people do rate [other] people as less than 100%.

“It is surprising, but it does come through in the research and seems to be a measure that is capturing something.”

It’s a curious, surprising, and disturbing finding. I wondered what, in the ‘privacy of the polling booth’, might motivate a respondent to pick an insectoid option: do they really view cyclists as sub-human? Do they have a naturally antagonistic personality?

Maybe they’re a cyclist who thinks their answer might skew data to raise concern for cyclist safety.

I put these to Collyer. She did note some written responses from participants took issue with the forced choices presented in the cyclist attire questionnaire and the concept of dehumanisation more generally.

But while she acknowledges it’s hard to know a respondent’s motivations when conducting a scale-based survey, she also flags social desirability bias – where a person would want to look empathetic and pick the most acceptable option – would seem a more logical motivation.

“It’s interesting because you would think with something like social desirability bias, it would go the other way: ‘100% Of course!’,” she says.

“It is quite a confronting scale, but I would’ve put my money more on the social desirability bias, which would go the other way, in the more positive aspect.

“But we can’t know 100% as to the motivations of the respondents, and I wouldn’t take anything off the table.”

Collyer also flags the particular dehumanising effect of high-vis clothing indicated by the results. How does this attire change attitudes about the person wearing it, whether a cyclist, a road worker, a tradesperson, or someone else working in a hazardous environment?

Clearly, there’s still a lot to be learnt from this study and others like it. Both Limb and Collyer warn against jumping to any comprehensive conclusions based on their findings, even though some observers – whether on the saddle or behind the wheel – might want to do so.

“This sort of research – dehumanisation in cycling – is still in its infancy,” Limb says.

“If you’re going to rely on these sorts of survey-based instruments to do these sorts of studies, taking it out of the pilot stage that we’re currently in and having representative samples will be super important for this field.

“It’s such an emotive topic. We were so cautious to phrase the study in such a way that we weren’t going to bring in the kind of culture war that exists when trying to seek participants. There are such really strong views held by people around the topic.”

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