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Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Motornomativity: How Social Norms Hide a Major Public Health Hazard

Walker, I., Tapp, A., & Davis, A.
(2022, December 14).


Decisions about motor transport, by individuals and policy-makers, show unconscious biases due to cultural assumptions about the role of private cars - a phenomenon we term motonormativity. To explore this claim, a national sample of 2157 UK adults rated, at random, a set of statements about driving (“People shouldn't drive in highly populated areas where other people have to breathe in the car fumes”) or a parallel set of statements with key words changed to shift context ("People shouldn't smoke in highly populated areas where other people have to breathe in the cigarette fumes"). Such context changes could radically alter responses (75% agreed with "People shouldn't smoke... " but only 17% agreed with "People shouldn't drive... "). We discuss how these biases systematically distort medical and policy decisions and give recommendations for how public policy and health professionals might begin to recognise and address these unconscious biases in their work.


Our survey showed that people can go from agreeing with a health or risk-related proposition to disagreeing with it simply depending on whether it is couched as a driving or non-driving issue. In the most dramatic case, survey respondents felt that obliging people to breathe toxic fumes went from being unacceptable to acceptable depending on whether the fumes came from cigarettes or motor vehicles. It is, objectively, nonsensical that the ethical and public health issues involved in forcing non-consenting people to inhale air-borne toxins should be judged differently depending on their source, but that is what happened here. It seems that normal judgement criteria can indeed be suspended in the specific context of motoring, as we suggested.

Obviously, we used questions in this study that we felt would stand a good chance of demonstrating a difference between how motoring and non-motoring issues were viewed. But choosing questions likely to reveal differences is not the same thing as stacking the deck. We gave the social bias every chance to reveal itself, but that could only happen because it was out there to be revealed. Prentice and Miller (1992) argue that the ease with which a behavioural phenomenon can be triggered is an index of its true magnitude. The ease with which effects appeared in this study was striking: in the final question the UK public went from 17% agreement to 75% agreement just by changing two words in the question whilst leaving its underlying principle unchanged.

Another example of a culturally acceptable (or ingrained) bias for harm. Call it "car blindness" or "motornormativity."