This is Scientific American — 60-Second Science. I'm Emily Schwing.
"You know how it is when you're driving behind a car and you notice the bumper sticker, and you think to yourself 'Oh, it's that kind of person' or, 'Why would somebody put that on their car?'"
Walter Goettlich, a sociology graduate student at the University of Kansas.
"I was coming back from a vacation with my family...and I was behind a car and the bumper sticker on the car was almost illegible, the type was really tiny and it said, 'When this baby hits 88 miles an hour, you're going to see some serious s**t.'"
This was Goettlich's AHA! moment. As you may guessed, the bumper sticker was a reference to the movie Back to the Future..."...when this baby hits eighty-eight miles per hour, your gonna see some serious shit."...It's moments like this, on the highway, driving at speed, that can seem so solitary, but in fact there are opportunities to connect—and with perfect strangers.
"That's' what I'm trying to get at...the way that we think about the world, based on how we read what other people put on their cars."
To sample the kinds of messages being sent on our roads, Goettlich drove more than 10,000 miles on interstate highways throughout the eastern United States. He says one major variety of bumper sticker refers to things nearly everyone knows about—an election, a church, a social issue. But other bumper stickers may require an observer to access what Goettlich calls "outside resources." For example, the bumper sticker that says, "The Dude Abides" might drive some people to do a quick Google search. But a few viewers may feel an instant bond, being fans of the movie The Big Lebowski.
"So, the kinds of stickers I tend to like are the ones that don't make sense to me, because what they do is they challenge my preconceived notions of the world."
Another type of sticker is a response to other stickers. For example, you know those window stickers of stick families? Some even include a stick dog or a stick cat? "And then I saw recently another example which was 'making my family,' and it was what were clearly male and female stick figures having sex."
And then there are the ones that say, "My son beat up your honor student."
So, when you're on the road, check the messages sent by other cars around you. You might just connect, in a way you never expected. And without even bending a fender.
Thanks for listening for Scientific American — 60-Second Science. I'm Emily Schwing.