The mysteries of emotions are untangled in "How Emotions Work" (University of Chicago Press) by UCLA sociology professor Jack Katz. Katz addresses such questions as why we cry in the best and worst moments of our lives, how anger is played out as drama in fleeting contacts among strangers on the roads of Los Angeles, why we shout when we are angry, how eight-year-old boys evoke moral justification to hide their shame when they strike out in baseball, and how we can be moved so powerfully by hidden forces we barely understand.

Studying vivid emotional experiences in natural everyday settings — such as people crying when speaking at weddings and retirement parties, drivers getting ferociously mad in Los Angeles traffic, a murder suspect crying during a police interrogation as he confesses to two murders — Katz provides insights into human behavior and shows how artfully we produce our emotions. The book is based on hundreds of interviews, videotapes and sociological analysis.

The book's longest chapter, "Pissed Off in L.A.," shows how Los Angeles drivers frequently get angry and respond in "seemingly absurd ways" such as yelling at other drivers over great distances, with their car windows rolled up; seeking revenge on offending drivers through risky maneuvers that secure only the most minor advantage and do not seem worth the effort moments later; and using obscene gestures to drivers who cut them off.

"All differences in income, prestige, social power and respectability are washed out on these egalitarian roads," Katz said. "Wealth and status provide no advantage. It's astonishing how quickly minor changes can be experienced as carrying the most profound significance. The driver experiences a rude person as making a statement about his or her identity on the order of: You are a fool, a nobody, someone who deserves no respect, who need not even be treated as existing."

For many people in Los Angeles, road rage is "virtually an everyday ritual," Katz said. Some 150 Los Angeles drivers were contacted to recount their driving experiences for Katz's book, and "virtually nobody had any difficulty recalling an experience of becoming pissed off while driving," he said.

Katz found it remarkable that when people are interviewed about their experiences while driving, "they commonly reach back months, even years, to produce highly detailed versions of events, and in the process of recounting them, sometimes begin to relive the anger, becoming visibly animated."

Attorneys, accountants, mothers, a nurse, a psychoanalyst, a retired college professor and a Vietnamese refugee were among those who admitted to "giving the finger" to other drivers. Many said they swerve around numerous cars to cut off a driver who earlier cut in front of them, and many tailgate cars that were tailgating them. Some feel they are performing a public service when they enact these forms of revenge and are teaching a lesson to road bullies who do not follow the rules of the road and need to be put in their place.

Driving "is a kind of endless Rorschach test," Katz said, that provides a nearly "infinite series of ambiguous moments" as Los Angeles drivers enter into "daily encounters with impassioned chaos."

Katz cites many examples of absurd scenes such as these:

  • Jan, who lives with her husband and two children in Orange County and works as an athletic coach at a major university, is late to practice as she drives her red Corvette convertible along a curvy road. A slow driver in front of her will not allow her to pass. When she eventually passes him, she stops her car, forcing him to stop behind her. She walks briskly to his car and puts her head through his window; they yell insults at each other; she punches him in the face, then gets back in her car and speeds off. She cannot believe she hit him, and says later he could have chased her and pulled a gun on her.
  • During stop-and-go freeway traffic, Catherine, a housing inspector, notices a car weaving around traffic behind her. "There was no way I was going to let him get in front of me," she recalled, "so I kept him boxed in by speeding up or slowing down when I had to. I felt an almost sick sense of pleasure in watching him get mad!"
  • After angrily pulling in front of a car that had cut him off on the Hollywood Freeway at midnight, Rudi, a minister's son, found himself surrounded by two cars working together to box him in and fire shots at his car. "At first believing that another driver was indifferent to his existence, Rudi was angry about being cut off," Katz said. "Then Rudi became fearful as he realized he was confronting just the opposite problem, excessive attention to his existence. Drivers in Los Angeles frequently struggle with defining the line between an oblivious and an overly concerned other driver, a line that runs on the slippery slope between anger and fear." Rudi escaped injury.
  • Ralph, who works at a Beverly Hills architectural firm, is driving his girlfriend and his brother to Las Vegas. Going 70 on a steep mountain incline, he sees a van trying to pass him with its high beams on. When the road gets too narrow for the van to pass, Ralph slows down to "piss off" the driver. As the van driver passes him, the driver gives Ralph the

finger and cuts in close. Ralph then uses his high beams on the van, passes the van, and slows down dramatically. His girlfriend and brother urge him to calm down and let it go. Recounting the incident, Ralph said, "I didn't respond to their comments. I didn't care if I was scaring her and my brother."

Katz sees a "crucial difference" between being the driver and a passenger.

"Although they are only inches from each other, it is only the driver who feels cut off," Katz said. "Driving requires an intertwining of the identities of driver and car, and the driver does not doubt that he or she has been cut off. Not only are passengers unlikely to share the driver's emotions, but when passengers do get irritated, they are more likely to focus on the faults of their own driver than on the other drivers. A passenger may observe the same rudeness, feel frustrated by the same traffic, be startled by the same aggressive conduct of other drivers, but watch with amusement or fear as the driver gets angry."

Not much is really at stake in these encounters, so why do warriors in road battles react with such strong emotions, particularly revenge, when someone cuts them off?

"It is facile to explain such outbursts while driving as revealing deep-seated hostilities, universal aggressive drives or angry forces that are built into people by some presumed character of their culture, such as its competitive nature. Often the immediately preceding mood was pleasant, perhaps a happy memory, before abruptly changing to something along the lines of 'I'm getting screwed by that dumb jerk.'"

Offended drivers search to find a way of forcing the offender to acknowledge their existence, and work hard to have their intentions recognized.

Why road rage?

One reason we get angry, Katz said, is we resent that we must give so much importance and energy to petty interactions with strangers in other cars.

"Cars are treated like private living rooms that are driven around in public," he said. "Rude and inconsiderate drivers do not injure only by showing disrespect, but also by undermining our ability to be in two places at once. Many people develop what they regard as shrewd ways of moving around society. These include carefully choosing streets that carry little traffic, sneakily cutting across gas stations to beat traffic lights, discreetly using another car as a screen to merge onto a highway, passing through an intersection and brazenly doubling back to avoid a long line in a left-turn lane; variations in motoring cunning are endless. When we are cut off by another driver, what can be cut off is an overall game plan. Angry drivers are angry that they must give so much importance to working out the relationship between their petty interactions with other drivers.

"It's not simply that other drivers impede one's progress to a given destination, but that

driving interactions crystallize a challenge common to all of social life. An unpleasant interaction with another driver may interrupt a joyful memory or a phone conversation with a friend, or may break the flow of strategic maneuvers that had been making the trip a testament to one's extraordinary urban cunning, and require one to grip the steering wheel tightly. Getting stuck in traffic makes it painfully clear that I am not the master of my destiny that I thought I was."

A frequently unemployed roofer who cannot pay all of his bills even when he works a 40-hour week drives an old car with 170,000 miles on it. When others cars cut him off, what they are cutting off seems to be his last tie to respectable membership in the community, Katz said. This roofer admitted he sometimes fantasizes about "running a tailgater off the road or destroying a rich person's car."

For someone else who was interviewed, getting a Mercedes meant growing up and being a successful adult, with a stable and secure life. "If some 'asshole' cuts in front of her, what is cut off is likely to be the faith that she is now secure and immune from uncertainty," Katz said.

It is not surprising, Katz said, to see an elegant middle-aged woman, "perfectly coifed while driving through Beverly Hills in a gleaming new Mercedes SL 500, suddenly raise a three-karat-diamond-studded fist to project 'the finger' to an unkempt driver of a shabby 10-year-old economy car."

Why is "giving the finger" a popular remedy for road rage?

"The finger communicates simply by being seen," Katz said. "With the simple, quiet flip of a single finger, the gesturer can move from a state in which he or she had been molested by someone who rudely invaded his or her space, to a state of relaxation, once again sealed in quiet comfort and moving through public space in a mobile private living room. As the recipient takes in the avenging victim's humiliating gesture, the avenger is cleansed of the anger resulting from the earlier humiliation, metamorphosing out of anger and into joyful revenge. Because the angered party's purpose is to flip one's anger off, the target can usually end the interaction by not resisting its accusation."

Why we cry

Among Katz's insights into other emotions:

Even a silent, single tear typically represents a profound experience, when we are moved to an unusual depth. "Tears are linked to what is precious in life; crying recognizes what is worthy of pride, what is awe-inspiring and inspirational" and often occurs when we cannot verbalize what we feel or mean. Adults cry silent tears to honor what is too sacred to capture with language.

  • While sad crying is often loud, joyful crying in response to precious moments such as the birth of one's child, a wedding, or a major achievement by a loved one, is almost always silent, as we discreetly brush tears aside.
  • Young boys playing baseball often rush to transform shame into anger (the umpire made a bad call, the catcher distracted me with a mean remark) before it emerges as crying.
  • Katz disputes that emotions are in conflict with reason, as so often depicted. As an illustration, he shows how a murder suspect cries strategically to buy time under interrogation as the police present evidence that undermines his story. His crying is part of a desperate effort at self-preservation.

Why are the everyday events that Katz writes about worthy of scholarly analysis?

"These little moments are our lived religion, our concrete efforts to make sense of life at times when what we encounter goes beyond what seems sensible or reasonable," Katz said. "These little moments are falls in which we repeatedly relive the struggle to make personal sense of our lives and what we witness. This is what we shed silent tears about, what provokes us to abandon our calm and scream, indicating the limits of our efforts to live a controlled life; laughing is often what we do in the face of the irresistible absurdities in our lives.

"The challenge these everyday emotions present to us is, how will you respond to a fall? Which of four ways? In vaudeville humor, falls lead to laughs; for young children, they provoke tears; even for adults, slipping down a staircase can be shame-provoking; and if you think you fell because someone was negligent or pushed you, you get angry. We all fall. Often the self-portraits that we produce through our emotions are not what we want others to see of us, but this is the lived truth of our identities, day by day."