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It's Just Not That Easy to Get Rid of Your Car

Research proves we're prone to emotional attachments with our vehicles. So here's some advice from someone who finally let go of hers. 

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I was dragging some boxes out to the garage when I found my mom in the driveway, gently dabbing at the windshield of my Prius with a soapy rag. “You don’t have to do that,” I said, embarrassed that she’d take it upon herself to wash my grimy property. “I know,” she replied. “I guess it’s my way of saying goodbye.”

Hugging her, I interpreted this as a slightly odd farewell to me, since I was about to drive cross country for a new start in D.C. There I’d sell Evelyn, my trodden though trusty 2004 hybrid, and skip through city life unencumbered. My mom would miss me, I supposed.

It was only two months later, as I sped away from a Virginia dealership appraisal so low it felt like an insult to both me and Prius, swearing bitterly I’d keep my baby til I’d found an owner who saw through its crappy re-paint and 108K mileage, who really saw Evelyn for Evelyn, that I realized my mom’s send-off had not, in fact, been for me. It was for the car, which, as it became clear, we both had deep feelings for. After all, it had originally been hers.

•       •       •       •       •

Let me get a few things out of the way: cars are a key culprit in our global environmental disaster. They engender unsustainable cities. They make us fat. And that's just one thin pass at the societal ills attended by automobiles.

But cars are also socially and economically significant. To many of us, they are beloved, person-like companions. More than 70 percent of respondents to a recent AutoTrader survey were at least “somewhat” if not “very attached” to their cars, with 36 percent describing their vehicle as “an old friend.” In another study, nearly half of all drivers assigned a gender to their cars, and about one-third actually name them. 

For many car-owners, emotional attachment can also come hand-in-hand with socio-economic mobility. For example, there's research that suggests for certain low-income families, owning a car is linked to the ability to live in neighborhoods with lower poverty rates and lower health risks, as well as higher neighborhood satisfaction and stronger chances of employment. 

Car-owners often assign human-like attributes to our cars, too. A 2006 study found significant differences between how participants understood their own personality and how they described their cars’.  And in that same AutoTrader report, more than a quarter said they felt “sad” when they thought about parting ways with their internally combusting pal.

Before I left L.A., when I'd mention to friends that I planned on listing my car once I got to D.C, many were surprised and even a bit melancholy. Evelyn had been the vehicle (ha) for plenty of adventures my friends and I had shared. "I'd be so sad to sell my car!" they'd say. "Aren't you going to miss it?" Maybe, I'd reply, but then would paint a portrait of Washington, D.C., transit options optimistic enough to drag a "I guess you don't need it," out of the listener.

Sure, my car had a name. But would I "miss" it? I didn't think so. With a touch of superiority, I felt great about the idea of letting go.

It wasn't until I actually got the estimate that I felt the sting of separation. "SELL NOW" flashed on the monitors at CarMax, in the manner of a "ENGINE FIRE" light bleating in a cockpit. All those happy memories of roadtrips with Evelyn to Big Sur—somehow they'd be further away once she was gone. Then there was the fear I'd never have something so reliable as her, if caught in a pinch. And what if she went to a "bad home"? The sales process was all so anonymous; there was no way to know.

Never had I felt so "close" to my car, so irrationally sure that she was a little bit of a person, and a good one at that. For now she was being sold, an implicitly dehumanizing act. 

Turns out the more we personify our cars on a day-to-day basis, the more likely we are to dread saying goodbye. In a 2010 study, researchers at the University of Michigan asked one group of participants to describe their cars in technical terms (such as “unresponsive” or “versatile”) and other participants to describe their cars in personality terms (such as “enthusiastic” or “quarrelsome”). Afterwards, both groups were asked about their willingness to replace their cars. Those in the personality group were far less keen to do so than those in the technical group, and were also much less likely to take into account the quality and functionality of the car in context of replacing it. 

The relationship between description and people's willingness to replace their car. Participants in the Anthropomorphism condition filled out a personality questionnaire for their car. Control conditions either rated their car on non-anthropomorphic traits or did not rate their car. (Journal of Consumer Psychology)

So even when our cars are in crappy shape, the emotional attachment we have to it can trump material demands, encouraging us to overspend in maintaining it or preventing us from selling the thing when it's time.

And for more and more of us, it is indeed becoming time. By all accounts the U.S. has already passed 'peak car'The number of Americans giving up car ownership in favor of a fleeter-of-foot lifestyle has been rising since before the recession. So given how common it is to feel emotionally attached to cars—even among people like me, who are selling off their vehicles for highfalutin urban-y reasons—perhaps there's a need for a new kind of coping strategy for car-shedders to adopt. Here's the advice I can offer. 

First, don't belittle yourself for experiencing feelings about your car. If there's anything the research on this subject reveals, it's that to anthropomorphize is human. Anthropomorphism pervades our judgement because, as many argue, we're wired to care about other people. "Guessing the world is humanlike is a good bet," writes anthropologist Stewart Guthrie in Faces in the Clouds. "It is a good bet because the most valuable interpretations usually are those that disclose the presence of whatever is most important to us. That usually is other humans." This is not to suggest most of us actually mistake our cars as people, but to point out that when we feel sad about our car, it's a reflection of our emotional bandwidth for other living beings.

Second, there's research that shows attachment to objects might be related to uncertainty and unreliability in human relationships. Objects, says the study, "are perceived as exceptionally reliable. Because objects lack agency, they can be completely controlled, summoned when needed and discarded when not." That responsiveness can be attractive to someone who's experiencing unreliability in their personal lives. (In my case, I wonder if the unfamiliarity of a new city was contributing to my difficulty letting go of the Prius.)

The author and her dearly departed car. (Laura Bliss)

Third, perhaps it's worth using your car's personal attributes to help you step away. Would bright, cheery, eco-friendly, economical Evelyn want me to continue taking up room in jam-packed D.C.? No. Would she encourage me to keep paying insurance and registration fees? No. Would she want me to rely on her next time I want to take a day trip to Delaware? Well, maybe she would. Sigh.

But I'll take solace in the fact that I've got a ZipCar parking spot behind my new apartment, where a car named "Pagoda" quietly dwells (it's no accident that ZipCar names its fleet: the company says this mode of personification leads customers to take better care of the cars). I think P. and I will get along fine. 

And I also feel good knowing I ended up selling Evelyn not to some anonymous buyer at CarMax, but to a family of five in Leesburg, Virginia. Initially the dad, Igor, had wanted to buy a used Prius for his freshly 16-year-old son. But by the end of the transaction, Igor had decided he enjoyed driving Evelyn so much, he planned to keep it for himself and give his own used (though much newer than Evelyn) sedan to the kid.

"It's weird," Igor said as he pulled the Prius out of my alleyway. "I just really like this car."

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