Ask Freud: What Does Your Car Say about You?

Should you believe the car-related personality stereotypes—or not?

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Love it, hate it, or just do it and get through it: driving is as American as apple pie. Over 90 percent of us drive every day, and with hundreds of makes, models, and years on the road, you’re likely to see a lot of variety in your everyday travels. Lots of folks have opinions about what the kind of car a person chooses to drive says about them—we all know the cliché of the middle-aged man in the sports car who is assumed to be overcompensating for something. Or the classic car that only women can ever be seen driving: the Volkswagen Rabbit convertible. But at Quoted we wondered: can the car you drive really say something about you, as a person? And if so, what does your car say about you? To find out, we spoke to a psychologist—for an expert’s opinion—and mechanic—for the opinion of someone who sees cars and drivers, day in and day out.

First, Quoted spoke with Dr. Thomas D’Agostino, a New York City-based psychologist, for the inside scoop about what a person’s choice of car might say about them.

Quoted: Tell us: Does the car someone drives say something about who they are as a person?

D’Agostino: “It’s an interesting question, and somewhat complicated to answer, but the short answer is: yes, a person’s car choice can, and often does, say a lot about who they are. The car you buy or drive and the way you think and feel about it is significant, just as the clothes you wear, or the partner or career you choose, are significant—they’re all choices people make. These choices, along with other information, can start to give us a sense of what might be driving or motivating a person under the surface.

In terms of buying a car, somebody might look at it and reason that it serves certain functions in their day to day life—a minivan enables you to put multiple car seats in and pack all your kids’ stuff in the back, a convertible enables you to put the top down and enjoy the weather on a sunny day, and a truck enables you to help your buddy out by moving their couch. So people may speak about these things when talking about why they chose to buy a particular car, but the car we buy and the way we think and feel about that car can also take on psychological meaning. Take a teenager, for example. Talking about and fantasizing about cars—ones they have or ones they want—serves as a way to connect with other kids, to have companionship, to socialize. But it also might enable a teenager to compensate for feelings of insecurity or inferiority. A car can be a way to bolster their sense of self and their confidence by connecting them to something they feel holds power—so this could be why teenagers are drawn to fast cars, for example.”

Quoted: So, different cars must mean different things for different people—there isn’t one simple answer.

D’Agostino: Of course.

People who drive sports cars might be narcissistic.

Quoted: Let’s talk about what kinds of things specific cars might communicate about the owner. How about a hybrid, or another environmentally conscious car—what might these types of cars say?

D’Agostino: “For people who make choices like buying a hybrid, on the one hand, you can make a case that they’re pursuing behaviors that can benefit the society as a whole—if everyone made choices like that the world would be better.

It’s important to remember that for every single person, a car can mean different things. At this point, the evidence for global warming is overwhelming. So, if sheer facts and rational thought motivated behavior and consumerism, there would be a higher demand for hybrid cars, companies would be putting out cheaper models and more people would be buying them. But that’s not the case (Quoted fact: Hybrid cars hold just 3 percent of the market).

Some people are more prone to looking at global warming information and other environmental concerns and feeling a sense guilt or shame that drives them to buy an environmentally responsible car. Other people might drive a hybrid and feel very critical and judgmental of people who don’t. It could be about putting themselves in a position to feel more superior than others—they put their money out there to do something good for the environment while others are polluting and ruining the world.”

Quoted: Aren’t some hybrid drivers simply concerned with social responsibility?

D’Agostino: “Social responsibility is of course a big component and I’m sure that for many hybrid drivers their car demonstrates the importance of contributing to society in a positive way. Another possibility: A hybrid could simply mean that the owner just has more money to spend and is able to make an environmental choice.

Just to back up a minute, I don’t think most of these are conscious choices—it’s not like somebody who buys a truck or SUV thinks, “Screw the environment.” They might come across information about global warming and pollution at various times in their lives, but it doesn’t resonate with them in the way it does for somebody else who might be prone to feelings of guilt or shame. Those types of people tend to have a profound sense of responsibility and a strong internal standard of behavior and responsibility—that they hold themselves to strictly. There’s an old joke in psychology about people who tend to struggle with deep-rooted guilt—They’ll say, “When somebody accuses me of a crime I didn’t commit, I think, how could I have forgotten?”

Quoted: What about the other end of the spectrum: an expensive sports car. What might that say about a person?

D’Agostino: “For this one, I don’t want to offend too many people, and as I’ve tried to say with everything, any particular car can mean any number of things for a particular person.

But, I would say that some people who drive expensive sports cars might be bothered by narcissistic personality issues. Which means that they have a deep sense that something’s wrong with them, or that something inside them doesn’t stack up. Sounds cliche, but it often fits. Those feelings can be far too difficult to face, so a person builds up layers of protection as a means of defense, such as a focus on materialism. Other psychologists write that these types of people behave as if a person is judged more by the shininess of their car than by the depth of their character.

Wonder what they drive?
Wonder what they drive?

Quoted: So every person who drives an expensive, flashy car is shallow?

D’Agostino: “No, of course not. And this isn’t totally fair, because western society encourages people to strive for individualism and materialism, which can be very meaningful for some people, but for others it can go awry. For some people, materialism becomes their constant pursuit and it feeds and strokes their feelings of inferiority. The only problem is, for some at the extreme, it’s ultimately never enough. They are never satisfied. All the appreciation and admiration in the world can’t fix what they see as deficient at their core.

With that said, obviously certain cars are marketed to us as demonstrating the achievement of a certain level of status or exclusivity in society, the same as living in a fancy house in a particular zip code. So, in a lot of ways, having an expensive sports car is just part of that—it signals success, exclusivity, and that the owner has money to spare for such indulgences.

Quoted: What about the classic mom-mobile: a Minivan?

D’Agostino: “This is a hard one, because it’s much more functional than anything else. Parents come to mind the most when you think of a minivan, and they’re built in every way to help people with kids function day to day—there are often TVs built in for entertainment, doors that open and close with a button, and seats that easily go up and down. Minivans are really all about maximizing pleasure and decreasing pain, and you can’t get much closer to our basic psychological desires than that.

For a lot of people, cars can be a way of compensating for something; a means to feel powerful or in control. We haven’t even touched on how people behave once their behind the wheel, but we can leave that for another time. I think parents or other people who buy a minivan might not need to compensate as much as another person might. Another possibility is that the importance of their role as a parent and their sense of responsibility supersedes any deeper, unconscious issues.

Quoted: How about a sedan—just a regular old four-door car, nothing too expensive or flashy, maybe even used—what might that kind of car mean?

D’Agostino: “We’re talking about what the car that you choose to buy and drive means, but for a lot of people, especially younger people, there’s not as much of a choice. If people had access to money, a lot of the issues we talked about would apply. Somebody might fantasize about an expensive sports car, but the car they actually drive is very different—maybe it’s a car that was passed down, or is just run-of-the-mill because that’s what was within their budget. For a person like this, if we are talking about their psychology and what their car says about them, I would be more focused on what their feelings are about the car they drive and what car they wish to have. So for example, if a young person beginning to embark on their career commutes every day in a used car that’s a decade old with visible signs of wear and use, they might be able to recognize that it’s a common thing to not be able to drive a new, fancy car, and they might feel just fine about it, but it could also serve as a constant reminder that the guy with the corner office parks closer to the building, and has that newer and fancier car to match his expensive suit and larger paycheck.”

So, if you’re wondering what your own car says about you, take a page from Dr. D’Agostino and imagine your dream car: if it’s very different from the car you drive every day, your fantasy is probably more psychologically revealing than your current wheels. And don’t worry, we won’t pry.

Quoted also sought the non-expert opinion of someone who’s been around cars of all kinds, and Joey Dee Montoya of Deadwood, Oregon—a town of about 100 people—was up for the challenge. In the words of his partner, Nancy Cleary, he “has been mechanickin’ on the farm all his life,” and he’s with Wyatt-MacKenzie Motorsports now.

Here’s Montoya’s assessment of what different types of cars say about a person:

  • A sedan says you’re a family man and you care.
  • A minivan says you’re a family man/woman and you’re busy caring for everyone.
  • A hybrid says you’re a teacher, professor, or someone who is trying to look like you care.
  • An expensive sports car says you’re a douche bag and don’t care.
  • A truck says you’re the most awesome, helpful person in the world.

(We’ll give you one guess what Montoya drives.)

So there it is: your car can say any number of things about you, and whether or not you fit the stereotypes usually associated with your car, the casual bystander may apply them to you anyway. But whether your car is just a means to an end, or the light of your life, we urge you to do as they suggested in middle school: be yourself, and don’t worry about what the other kids think.

A final note from Dr. D’Agostino: “For some people, their car just doesn’t take on all that much significance. It doesn’t necessarily always mean something.” To borrow a sentiment from Freudians: sometimes a car is just a car.

  • LAwoman

    Keep the dream alive Julia. One day maybe you’ll get your own sports car. Just transform that envy to motivation.