Our (very) mobile conscience

Dealing with good and evil (in traffic)  v.2

drawing head held anxietyIn 2010 a 38-year-old motorist filled with remorse entered a police station in the Netherlands to give himself up. Twenty years earlier he had run over a child and was ridden with guilt. The man explained that he slept badly since the accident, suffered from nightmares and could not find a decent permanent job. The approximately five-year-old child unexpectedly crossed the road and he could not brake in time. While another motorist took care of the victim, he drove away and since then he lived contrary to his conscience. Until it was too much for him that morning and he decided to surrender himself.

The following article was originally posted here on 30 May, as an in-house translation from the original Dutch text. It has  been made an better read with the help of several generous Dutch readers. (See below).

Like the man in this example, the psychologist struggles with conscience. We do not know exactly how it works. Are we at birth already equipped to distinguish good from evil? Or do we learn that as a child, based on experiences of reward and punishment? Or is it mainly the observed behavior of others around us (especially parents and peers) which form our conscience? We are hereby driver by self-interest?  Or is it more “wanting to belong”? It seems like a chicken-egg situation; our conscience is formed by education, but without any form of conscience to educate is impossible.

Suppressing impulses consumes energy

Anyway, somewhere in our heads is a place where our standards and our personalities are formed. The voice that tells us what we should and what we should not do. Facing the constant temptations of deeper passions. Temptations that we manage to temper at one moment, and at the next moment cannot resist.

A social psychologist Van Beest, explains as follows: “Aggressive men beat their wives rarely in the morning. They do it at night when they cannot control themselves, influenced by all kinds of factors such as alcohol and fatigue. Suppressing impulses consumes energy, which you have to do constantly.

In traffic, it is no different; with ticking time bombs on wheels just waiting to explode, most likely later on that day.


Subjective goodness and evil 

I borrow a conjecture from Lecturer in Philosophy Jeroen de Ridder concerning a possible connection between an ethical dilemma and Brussels sprouts. He argues that most Dutch people are happy that they live in the Netherlands, where slavery is against the law. But what would those same people have thought if they have lived in ancient Greece? Would they also have found it morally reprehensible to keep people as slaves? I do not think so.

De Ridder confronts us with the example of a little girl named Junia who is happy that she does not like Brussels sprouts: “I refuse to eat them because they taste awful.” Both the taste of Brussels sprouts like the disapproval of keeping slaves, as history teaches us, are not objective facts. They are individual or societal interpretations of events.

It’s interesting to conjecture whether the failure to stop after an accident of this gravity is an objectively evil act.  Or is it conceivable that in a different kind of society that it might be accepted?  Would the same man who in 2010 caused the death of the child, no longer do so with impunity as his conscience eventually dictated, and in such a (less exigent) society not have to endure such a long struggle? In our society there are people who approve (or at least accept) things that are morally condemned by others. Universal rules about good and evil apparently do not exist.

About anticipating guilt and emotional blackmail 

If our behavior only affects ourselves, our conscience usually keeps quiet. For instance, in the case of an appeal to trade in your car for a bike because it is good for your health — as opposed to moral grounds. But what if one connects the consequences of your choice to the fate of your children? The idea that by neglecting your health you may not be there for your children when they need you, could make it hard for a parent to reconcile their choice with their conscience.

Another reason often given to encourage people to cycle more is that it is better for the environment. This may sound a bit much, but it is in fact a case of emotional blackmail. Thus if we do not switch to a bicycle, we are effectively partly to blame for the demise of the earth and passing on misery to future generations.

On the other hand if you are very committed to your car, you’re in good company. You will find plenty of people who support you. “It’s not so bad with this global warming business and if it does exist then let’s carry on with the car, but with limits”. “And besides: everyone drives a car, so that is quite normal.” Voila, we can then step on the accelerator and give it the gas with a more or less clear conscience.

As regards road safety our conscience behaves in a similar manner. If only I know that I am in a drunken state when driving home, I can get my conscience to give myself a pass relatively easily. But even then: I know that there are people who care about me. What about them if I put my life at risk unnecessarily? And if in an accident I damage my head because I am too drunk, that is really morally reprehensible. If I have any doubts at the supreme moment, the government tries to step in and reinforce the efforts of my conscience with education, sanctions and offering behavioral alternatives.

Paradoxes of supplication

Most people have a reasonably healthy conscience and will stop after causing an accident. Most people will not willfully ruin the environment, and most love their children enough to be careful so as to grow old and be part of their life. Therefore, we should be able to appeal to people’s conscience as a marketing tool. We all may feel some guilt about something, and when you change our behaviour on these points, you can ease that pain. That feels a lot better for both the party appealing for the change, and of course and most centrally for ourselves.

The effectiveness of your strategy depends on how you work. That of pointing fingers has little success, as we know already. The government by now has learned that lesson. Marketing experts Alex Hesz and Bambos Neophytou warn of offering turnkey solutions for reducing guilt. In the world of mobility this unfortunately take this form: “Go cycling, work at home, buy an electric car, drive slowly, and take the train. Then you can sleep sweetly afterwards.”

It sounds logical, but in practice it does not work for everybody. In the real world this approach meets with various forms of resistance. “Your solution is a nice idea, but it’s not for me.” Beyond that in many cases there is hardly any sense of shame about the exhibited behavior. “Everybody does it, after all, so who cares?”

What then? Hesz and Neohytou offer a three-step plan that fits well with my own vision of effectively influencing behavior.

  1. Step one is participation. People themselves have the opportunity to get involved in the desired behavior pattern. Instead of a pre-cooked solution ready to eat, it is advisable to make people think for themselves. Is there a problem? What problem? For whom is it a problem? What can we do about it? And after all that, what’s your problem and what can you do about it? Involvement and commitment provide a much greater chance of lasting behavioral change.
  1. Step two is consistency. Communicate the good qualities of the desired behavior and ensure that the behavior of the messenger him/herself is beyond reproach. Police officers who speed when in their own vehicles and executives with (large, gas-guzzling) cars, all the way to fraudulent politicians. These flagrant behavioral failures do not bring effective appeal to the conscience any closer.
  1. Step three is realism and moderation. Do not exaggerate. Before you accuse people you must have evidence. A single motorist cannot improve the environment. Cycling to work is not a guarantee to be a good parent and to stay fit. There is a clear line between guilt and asking for assistance. Put particular emphasis on the latter.

Finally, to get back to our social psychologist Van Beest from the beginning of this blog. Our conscience is at its best when we are spry and fit.  It is therefore recommended to listen to it at such moments.  Within your company if you want your employees to work for a common goal, meet and speak with them at the beginning of the day. Organize meetings on road safety or a new transport plan at the beginning of the week — and not when the working week has exhausted us mentally and we yearn for the weekend.

You have to strike while the iron is hot.


  • Hesz, A. & Neophytou, B., 2010, Guilt Trip: From Fear to Guilt on the Green Bandwagon, Wiley & Sons: Chichester, UK.
  • HLN, 2010, Saoedi die kind doodreed geeft zich na 21 jaar aan, Media Voogel, Haarlem.
  • Meester, M., 2007, De rol van het geweten, Aware Psychologie.
  • Ridder, J. de, 2014, Spinnen, bijen en de moraal, Abraham Kuyper Center, Amsterdam.
  • Schimmel, C.W., 2009, Het geweten: theologisch, psychologisch en pedagogisch, Drs Magazine online

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About the author:

gerard TertoolenGerard Tertoolen was born in Gouda, The Netherlands. He studied Clinical, Social and Organisational Psychology in Utrecht and obtained his Ph.D. in Social Psychology in 1994, from the University of Utrecht. He began his career as a researcher at the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, participating in an international programme on climate change. After that he worked as researcher, innovator, trainer and traffic psychologist for the Ministry of Transport, PvM (think tank about ‘Passenger Transport in the Future’) and TNO Research. Currently he is working as a senior consultant and traffic psychologist for XTNT, Experts in Traffic and Transport and has  founded his own company: The Traffic Psychologist GTi. He can be reached at g.tertoolen@xtnt.nl .

# # #

 This article by traffic psychologist  Gerard Tertoolen originally appeared in Dutch in the Dutch government blog KpVV Weblog Reisgedrag (KpVV Travel Behaviour Blog) on 27 May 2015 at http://kpvv-reisgedrag.blogspot.fr/2015/05/ons-mobiele-geweten.html.  The original English language version you find here is a roughly edited version of Google Translate which makes for a tough read. Several new Dutch friends appeared out of cyber space to lend a hand, so we are very pleased to thank Paul and Jan for helping us out of the most flagrant bits. The editor could not resist editing them as well. So if you see a few odd bits, it’s the editor’s fault. Thank you Jan and Paul, and of course Gerard.  Team work!

About the editor:

Eric Britton
9, rue Gabillot, 69003 Lyon France

Bio: Educated as an international development economist, Eric Britton is an American political scientist, teacher and sustainability activist who has worked on missions and advisory assignments on all continents. Professor of Sustainable Development, Economy and Democracy at the Institut Supérieur de Gestion (Paris), he is also MD of EcoPlan Association, an independent advisory network providing strategic counsel for government and business on policy and decision issues involving complex systems, social-technical change, civil society and sustainable development. Founding editor of World Streets: The Politics of Transport in Cities | See Britton online at https://goo.gl/9CJXTh and @ericbritton

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One thought on “Our (very) mobile conscience

  1. This remorse must be fairly common, but I have never seen a book about it. Even when the driver stays at the scene of the collision, there must be concern that the collision was avoidable. The difference in momentum between a pedestrian (or cyclist) and a car is so great. At least the driver should ask, “Was it necessary that I was driving to ?” “Was I really giving my driving 100% of my attention?”


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