The Cyborg Tram

In the previous episode we explored a glaring inconsistency of fundamental physics. Our use of inductive reasoning suggested that modern culture may place too much importance on doctrine, logic, and machines (experimental apparatii). Intuitive thinking – however critical – has been systematically exiled from the sciences over the course of the past hundred years. Unfortunately, this linear and machine-like trend now pervades most of human endeavor. In the current episode, we set sail for the exploration of the psycho- socio- and biological effects of human-machine interaction.

The premise
While living in Amsterdam I made frequent use of the public transport system, trams in particular. Nearly as frequently, after sprinting to the tram stop, I was disappointed to discover that the tram had continued along its route without me. Most metropolitans have shared the experience of missed buses, trains or trams, indeed it would be a very lucky or strange person who had not. What makes the Amsterdam experience interesting is that missing a tram invariably seems to involve a time interval of just one or two seconds, and decidedly machine-like behavior on the part of the tram driver.
Ghost in the machine

Allow me to describe the scenario. You see the tram approaching its stop, and make a sprint for it. The tram stops, the doors open, passengers embark and disembark, the doors close. By this time you have reached the tram, panting and usually – in Amsterdam – wetted by rain; a knock on the embarkation door to alert the driver, who sits no more than two meters from you and sees you, but does not make eye contact.

The driver is now presented with a button-press dichotomy. To use the door button, thus actuating the door mechanism and allowing you to embark the tram, or the bell button to chime a warning “DING-DING!”, as the tram pulls away from the stop. Since the driver is not responsible for collecting fares, and it normally takes only a second or two for a person who is already at the door to step onto the tram, we might assume that the driver’s default preference would be the cooperative option; to open the door and allow embarkation.
Button-press dichotomy

Surprisingly, in Amsterdam, more times than not the tram driver’s choice is uncooperative; DING-DING! Would-be passengers are left standing in the rain. Presumably the GVB (Dutch national public transport company) does not select prospect tram drivers on the basis of socio- and psychopathic tendency. Perhaps the restrictive, machine-like task of tram driving plays some part? Let us explore.

What is road rage?
The phrase “road rage” was first published by the Los Angeles Times in 1984(1).
Common manifestations of Road rage:
– Generally aggressive driving, including sudden acceleration, braking, and close tailgating.
– Cutting others off in a lane, or deliberately preventing someone from merging.
– Chasing other motorists.
– Flashing lights and/or sounding the horn excessively.
– Yelling or exhibiting disruptive behavior at roadside establishments.
– Driving at high speeds in the median of a highway to terrify drivers in both lanes.
– Rude gestures (such as “the finger”).
– Shouting verbal abuses or threats.
– Intentionally causing a collision between vehicles.
– Hitting other vehicles.
– Assaulting other motorists, their passengers, cyclists or pedestrians
– Exiting the vehicle to attempt to start a confrontation, including striking other vehicles with an object.
– Threatening to use or using a firearm or other deadly weapon.
– Throwing projectiles from a moving vehicle with the intent of damaging other vehicles.

Some authors have correlated road rage with intermittent explosive disorder (IED)(2), which is categorized and defined in the DSM-IV(3) as an impulse control disorder (ICD), along with kleptomania, pyromania, pathological gambling, and others.
“The essential feature of impulse control disorders is the failure to resist an impulse, drive, or temptation to perform an act that is harmful to the person or to others. For most of the disorders in this section, the individual feels an increasing sense of tension or arousal before committing the act and then experiences pleasure, gratification, or relief at the time of committing the act. Following the act there may or may not be regret, self-reproach, or guilt.”(4)

Clearly we would be hard pressed to define the behavior of Amsterdam’s tram drivers as IED, or as road rage. However we would do well to keep in mind that the reality of human psychology is rarely, if ever, black and white. Rather, it is spectral and very much more nuanced and complex than the written word allows us to express. So we might place the tram drivers’ behavior at the non-violent, but never the less “harmful to others” (i.e. antisocial) end of the ICD spectrum.

Psychobiological and environmental factors
“Having power over others and having choices in your own life share a critical foundation: control. People instinctively prefer high to low power positions […] it feels good when you have choice, and it doesn’t feel good when choice is taken away. [When people are deprived of choice], they display a thirst for power – for instance, by expressing greater desire to occupy a high-power position.”(5)

The adrenocortical (hormonal) and hypothalamic (aggressive) responses are ancient, inbred and found across many mammalian species, including humans. People who are not typically violent or aggressive may become so in settings previously associated with aggression, due to an increase in stress hormone secretion, which acts to facilitate the onset of aggression, so increasing the likelihood of violent behavior in a seemingly benign setting. Conversely, stimulating the hypothalamic ‘attack area’ leads to higher levels of stress hormone, which in turn leads to aggression – evidence of a psychobiological feedback loop(6).
Graphic representation of hypothetical mechanisms involved in the relationship between attack-controlling brain mechanisms and the adrenocortical stress response.
i.e. rat-race feed-back loop.
HPA = hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal;
PVN = paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus.

A closed circuit (tram route or daily commute) and lack of maneuverability (tram rails or traffic lanes) in combination with urban congestion can quickly and effectively reduce the level of control executable by drivers. Furthermore, a tram is not a train, it does not command its own track but is forced to share it with other motorized vehicles as well as cyclists and pedestrians, usually within congested high-traffic zones of a metropolis. Trams can not swerve to avoid potential collisions, nor can they easily take an alternate route to avoid track or route blockages, in addition city trams are expected to adhere to a tight schedule. All of these factors act to deprive the tram driver of control and choice.

In this light, the frequently observed antisocial result of the tram driver’s button-press dichotomy is understandable, indeed it is surprising that tram drivers do not snap!

Two questions come to mind:
a) To what extent is our interaction with machines dehumanizing our interpersonal and social interactions?
b) Is the frequency of human – machine interaction proportional to social disease (aggression, crime, antisocial behavior, etc…)?

Bibliography and Notes:
1) “Road rage”, Academic Dictionaries and Encyclopedias, (2010),

2) “Intermittent explosive disorder”, Wikipedia, (2012),

3) “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders”, Wikipedia, (2012),

4) “Impulse-Control Disorders Not Elsewhere Classified” DSM – online, (2000),

5) “It’s All About Control”, D. Menon, Association for Psychological Science, (2011),

6) “Fast Positive Feedback Between the Adrenocortical Stress Response and a Brain Mechanism Involved in Aggressive Behavior”, M. Kruk, etal, Vol. 118, No. 5, pages 1062–1070, Behavioral Neuroscience (2004),


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