What's Behind a Bumper Sticker?

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Waaaay back, when this blog was a few years old, I'd occasionally vent about a bumper sticker I found particularly annoying. In fact, the last time I did that was (cough!) a decade ago. Having a blog caused me to feel less annoyed for a variety of reasons, leading to the demise of that series of posts. Probably the main reason this happened was that I knew I was engaging in a discussion about many of the very issues it seemed some people felt such a strong need to notify complete strangers about -- but zero need to have a give-and-take about. A bumper sticker quite common in my neck of the woods caused me to think about that the other day, ultimately causing me to decide to see what "psychology of bumper stickers" might come up with in a search. I found the following, from a law blog, had been published about a year after my last post about bumper stickers:

I love the bumper sticker question in voir dire. I've met lawyers and seen journalists who are surprised by it, or think it's intrusive, but when you think about it, it's a no-brainer. If a juror holds an attitude so strongly that she'll paste it onto her car, you want to know what that attitude is.

New research suggests you should be interested in something else, too. It isn't simply what jurors' bumper stickers say, it's whether jurors have bumper stickers at all. Writing in the June issue of the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, Colorado State University researchers suggest that people with bumper stickers are more likely to be aggressive and angry people, or at least aggressive and angry drivers. [format edits, bold added]
That would make sense, given the widespread use of the imperative voice on top of the odd, other-focused (yet consequence-free) taunting inherent in the medium. Getting cut off by someone with a "Signal Virtue" -- I mean "Choose Civility" -- bumper sticker only seems ironic, for example. Who, valuing civility, needs to be told to choose it? Who, not valuing civility, is going to be persuaded to change his ways simply by being told to do so? Is this praise, unneeded since virtue is its own reward -- or a cowardly insult?

This isn't, of course, to say that a bumper sticker can't provoke thought or that everyone who has one has issues with psychological boundaries. That said, I think there is often something more behind a bumper sticker than its captive audience.

-- CAV


Anonymous said...

Yo, Gus, I generally agree about bumper stickers--there is a very low probability a bumper sticker is worth putting on your vehicle. (It's rather like reading marginalia in used books; 99% of the time the effort of writing it was as wasted as your effort reading it.) I admit though that we have a bumper sticker on our car: "A Woman's Place is on a Saddlebred." Horses are auspicious to Mongols, see, so we had to have it. For the same reason I am strongly encouraged to buy Polo shirts and ties--forget anything like preppiness or joining the power elite, they have horses on them!

In any case, few bumper stickers are as bad as the subject of this memorable bit of advice-seeking (Question No. 2). One suspects the letter writer was not long for the business world.

Gus Van Horn said...

Hah! Thanks for the two amusing sticker-related anecdotes. And I loved Allison Green's question: "Is this the hill you want to die on?"

Kyle Haight said...

Sometimes bumper stickers are genuinely amusing. I got a solid laugh a few weeks ago from a minivan with a bumper sticker that said "I Used To Be Cool".

Bumper stickers are also used as a way to advertise tribal or sub-cultural affiliations. This can be virtue signaling, or just fun. My wife used to have a magnetic bumper sticker on her car that said "Why Yes, It Is Made Of Rearden Metal". It's also common for sci-fi fans to do the same sort of thing.

Gus Van Horn said...

Yes, and you reminded me of a good laugh I got from one recently. It was, "Adults on board. We want to live, too."

Dinwar said...

I've seen at least one useful set of bumper stickers. I'm in a Medieval re-enactment group, the SCA (good people, good exercise, lots of fun!), and many members have SCA stickers--either the SCA arms, or the local kingdom/barony/shire arms--on their cars. This has the useful effect of creating an unofficial AAA. If someone in the SCA sees me in trouble, and sees the SCA sticker on my car, they're more likely to help. I'll admit I'm much more likely to help someone with a Meridies sticker who's having car trouble than someone with a "Obama 2012" bumper sticker. It's a nice, quiet way for a group of diverse people from all walks of life, who share a common interest, to identify each other.

These stickers tend to be fairly small and unobtrusive--the SCA's arms are a green laurel wreath on a gold background, for example. Deeply meaningful for those of us who are members, but never offensive or ostentatious (as bumper stickers--we go a bit wild when it comes to stuff we do internally! :D ).

It also is useful when a cop pulls you over and sees multiple swords, armor, and bits of siege weapons in your car. Technically that all classifies as sports equipment for us, rather than weapons--but proving that can sometimes be a tad tricky!

Objectiveman said...

"people with bumper stickers are more likely to be aggressive and angry people, or at least aggressive and angry drivers."
In India it the big stickers on the rear window and I just realised that I am always wary of such drivers.

Gus Van Horn said...


I've noticed the kind of sticker you speak of a lot lately, and they seem to have sprung up AFTER the article I mentioned. It would be interesting to know if a similar study on those might yield different results, given the different purpose of the bumper stickers.


You make me think of a video of self-regulating traffic in India I once saw. That (if it's the norm) and left-side driving so different than what I am used to that the big stickers would be the least of my worries!