Almost evey patient who has visited Washington psychoanalyst Edward C. Kirby in recent days has laid bare a psyche etched with new frustrations, anger and fantasies.
Dr. Kirby, a former president of the Washington Psychiatric Society, says his patients have told him of fears that they are "being done in." They have expressed what he termed a "feeling of helplessness, of being manipulated." They have recounted fantasies about taking revenge.
What has caused these new anxieties, says Kirby, is the impact of the Washington region's worsening gasoline shortage. "Most of what I hear are fantasies of what they'd like to do to a person who cut in a gas line," Kirby said in a telephone interview last week. "They'd like to explode on [such] a person."
According to psychiatrists, psychologists, sociologists and other researchers, the anxieties expressed by patients in Kirby's office illustrate how central the automobile has become in American life and how deeply troubled Washingtonians have become by the current crisis.
The automobile has come to symbolize the "image we want to project of ourselves," says New York psychologist Nicholas Zill. In the American motorist's fantasties, Zill said, the car is both a "cocoon" that offers privacy and a vehicle embodying "freedom and speed and power." For these reasons among others, researchers say, the gas shortage has delivered a psychic jolt.
Despite some conflicting conclusions and numerous uncertainties, psychologists and sociologists appear to express fundamental agreement about both the short-term and long-range impact of the gas shortage:
In the short run, gasoline scarcities have resulted in what psychologists term "classic panic behavior" among drivers in the Washington area and elsewhere. Such panic behavior includes acting almost entirely out of self-interest, displaying irrationality and ignoring moral issues of social responsibility, they say. It is reflected in jostling, hoarding, angry outbursts and long lines at service stations.
In the long term, a temporary gas shortage is inlikely to cause substantial changes in American driving habits. Although motorists initially may reduce their driving, postpone purchases of new cars and take other steps in the face of a gas crunch, many researchers say Americans almost certainly will return to their previous driving patterns once the emergency has faded.
"People, when confronted with an energy crisis, do not want to change their own behavior. They want to blame the crisis on somebody else," said Ricardo Dobson, a psychologist and senior research analysts for the Chase Automotive Division, a research subsidiary of Chase Manhattan Bank. After the 1973-74 Arab oil embargo, Dobson noted, "There was a brief momentary panic response [by America motorists] and then a resumption of normal behavior."
Dobson cited numerous statistics to back up his view. American production of auto equipped with such energy-consuming devices as air-conditioning, automatic transmissions and power steering declined temporarily in 1974 before resuming their previous upward trend, he said. At the same time, Dobson noted, production of U.S. cars with energy-saving four-cyclinder engines hit a temporary peak in 1974.
Other studies have led to similar conclusions. Psychologist surveyed 1,069 persons in the Los Angeles area in early 1974 and reported, among other findings, that 35 percent decided against taking a vacation trip because of the gas crisis.
When 514 of the same persons were surveyed again less than two years later, the proportion shunning vacation trips had dropped to 19 percent, according to Tom R. Tyler, a North-western University psycholigist who took part in the study.
"When gas became available, driving went back up," Tyler said.
Do Americans reduce their driving solely because gasoline is temporarily difficult to find or are they swayed, at least in part, by broader moral considerations? Researchers disagree on this issue.
The Los Angeles study concluded that those who supported the Nixon administration's energy policies were no more likely to reduce their gas consumption than those who opposed them.
But Elizabeth Martin, a sociologist at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, recently found in a similar study that ethical issues played at least a secondary role in Americans' efforts to conserve gas. Among factors that influenced some drivers in 1974, she said, were their beliefs that the nation faced a serious crisis, that other motorists were equally affected and that other drivers also were trying to save fuel.
Many researchers say that changes in American driving habits probably will occur only gradullay over a number of years because cars are so deeply entrenched in American life.
University of Pennsylvania sociologist Samuel Z. Klausner said that a typical American would likely postpone switching to a smaller car until he is ready to trade in his old one and would probably delay moving closer to his job site until he changes jobs.
"We have build t suburban society which deptnds upon the automobile and demands mobility," said Yale University socilogist Leroy C. Gould. "It's structurally built in."
The panic that has developed here recently because of the gas shortage has many parallels in psychological research, scholars say. It demonstrates human irrationality and self-concern under stress. Yale psychologist Paul C. Stern cited a classic 1951 experiment as an illustration.
In the experiment, about 20 persons surrounded a large bottle. Each held a string attached to a tiny wooden cone. Only one cone could be pulled through the bottle's neck at a time. Water was poured into the bottle and the participants were told to pull out their cones before they got wet. Panic set in. All 20 pulled on their strings at once, and the cones jammed up inside the bottle.
"They react for self and not for the total of society," said Georgetown University psychiatrist Murray Bowen, commendting on the reactions of Washington-area drivers to the gas shortage. "When you get an anxiety situation, you're as vulnerable as a herd of animals stampeding." CAPTION: Picture, FINGER-POINTING - Gasoline customer, third from left, gestures toward police officers during an argument with a station attendant at New York Ave. and Bladensburg Rd. NE. The customer had to pay $5 minimum for gasoline and could only get $3.76 worth into tank. Police ordered him to move along. By James M. Thresher - The Washington Post