Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Malcolm Gladwell on SUVs

The latest New Yorker has a piece by Malcolm Gladwell on sport utility vehicles that is fascinating. Long story short: SUVs aren’t as safe as many smaller, more nimble cars; but they sell because the give drivers the feeling that they’re safer; and– and here Gladwell goes from just really smart to brilliant– they reflect a belief that what makes drivers safe are passive measures like, well, giant hulks of steel, rather than their own intelligence and quick reflexes.

Though I wonder to what degree our obsession with safety devices– side-impact airbags, booster seats for children, etc.– subtly encourages this reliance on passive rather than active devices. I’d far rather be in a BMW Z3 than an Expedition in a bad road situation (though truth be told, I’d love to be in a Z3, period!), but I still want those air bags and smart restraints.

(Unfortunately, the article isn’t on The New Yorker magazine Web site, but there is an interesting Howard Dean profile.)

I’ve been thinking (in my post-Axelrod, Evolution of Cooperation-addled state) that the flourishing of SUVs can be explained in terms of a bad Prisoners’ Dilemma strategy (or as a tragedy of the commons): it reflects a belief that defection is superior to cooperation as a strategy for survival on the roads. Vehicles that pose a threat to other vehicles– because of their weight, their bulk, and their poor handling– are anti-social technologies, and their adoption reflects a belief that individual success must come at the expense of the collective good.


  1. So my choosing a Mini Cooper makes me a wildly eusocial driver?

  2. Hello, I just happened across your site through a Google search, and I thought you might want to know that an online copy of the SUV article exists on Malcolm Gladwell’s personal site. The link is available here. Cheers!

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