Never before have so many people been killed by their involvement with information technology. From being passive consumers only a few years ago we are now both creators and sharers of information, and we do it 24/7. Many of us have become psychologically joined at the hip with our devices, unable to take our eyes, ears, hands or minds off of them. Death by text is especially baffling since it can so easily be avoided. So how do we explain it? It is my contention several inherent processes of the human mind compromise our ability to cope with TWM in an environment of massive technological connectedness. To show this, I look to folk psychological explanations for texting accidents, discarding some and examining those with merit in more detail, and then propose another theory to account for the mindless nature of the syndrome. These discussions reveal three conditioned mental habits--group effects, risk evaluation heuristics, and partial consciousness or zombieism--which may explain this self-destructive behavior. Finally, I look at how some quarters are addressing the problem.
According to Toronto Police Service, in 2011 almost 1,000 pedestrians were struck by a vehicle while distracted in the GTA and 18 of them died. The United States' Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that in 2009, nearly 1,000 deaths and 24,000 injuries in distracted driving accidents involved cell phone use. And in 2008, more than 980 emergency room patients in the U.S. reported having been injured while walking and texting at the same time. Although many things can distract a person while walking down the street or driving, text messaging is among the most dangerous because it requires three types of attention visual, manual, and cognitive, often simultaneously (Mandel, 2012; Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2011; Anderson, n.d.). And yet we continue to do it. Why? Folk wisdom suggests a few possibilities. 1) Denial: people don't really think TWM causes any more accidents than other distracting behaviours. Yet many people have heard of a study that found cell phone use to be equivalent to drunk driving (Strayer, Hughes & Crouch, 2006), and in a Consumer Reports survey, of 80% of teen drivers who said they understood the risks of driving while texting, a third admitted to doing it anyway (Goulding, 2012). 2) Multitasking: people feel they can handle it because they are good at doing many things at once. However, a 2011 study that trained people to walk a short distance then repeat it wearing a hood that obscured both the floor and the destination while a) talking on a cell phone, b) walking the path without a phone or c) walking it while texting showed texters to be significantly more dangerous, both overshooting the destination and wandering off the path by more than 60 percent (Lamberg & Muratori, 2011). Other studies show that multitaskers, while they may feel multiply competent, actually underperform on simultaneous tasks (Turkle 2011, p. 165), revealing the muititasking excuse to be both hollow and inaccurate. 3) Urgency: the message might be too important to ignore. Considering the trivial content of most messaging, this claim seems specious, but the intensely subjective nature of this decision has many inputs, not least among them peer pressure, which are worth examining further. 4) Invulnerability: bad things happen to other people, not to me. It is felt that this belief is especially strong among young people, who are overrepresented among TWM perpetrator-victims. We'll now look at these last two rationales in more detail.
One blind spot when we judge the importance of a message is that usually we focus on the content. This narrow focus overlooks the other value of knowledge gathering, that of simply being in the know. For instance, when looking at the reliability of medical focus groups designed to obtain feedback on patient behaviours. Carey & Smith (1994) found that "a participant's contribution is likely to affected by previous comments in the session, and the participant's perception of status differential" (p. 125). Plainly speaking, people take their cues from what other people think, especially important people. Their responses when in a group setting are so strongly affected that researchers must take the extra step of analyzing individual as well as group responses in order to avoid a skewed result. It is this same desire to know what others are thinking before speaking up that strikes dumb lecture halls filled with hundreds of otherwise voluble students when a professor asks, "Any questions?" We must acknowledge that simply knowing what others are saying is something that most people would deem important, regardless of content. Adding to that, such group effects (aka peer pressure) are especially strong in teens and young adults, who are in the midst of finding and establishing their identity in the world. Perhaps, then, it is no coincidence that in a University of Maryland study, of 116 accidents due to pedestrians wearing headphones, fully two-thirds involved people under the age of 30 (Associated Press, 2012). In her book, Alone Together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other, Sherry Turkle writes, "These young people live in a state of waiting for connection". She quotes one girl as claiming, "If I hear my phone I have to answer it. I don't have a choice. I have to know who it is, what they are calling for." This girl then recounts the story of a friend who chipped her tooth on her refrigerator door due to TWM, showing that its dangers are neither unknown to her nor considered too uncommon (Turkle 2011, p. 171). But even allowing for this naturally compulsive "need to know," it can't completely explain how one can continue to do an activity such as texting while driving that is so dangerous, not only to oneself but to others. We feel that other factors must be at play.
Near and Far
In the 1960's, Stanley Milgram conducted a series of famous experiments in which people also continued to perform an activity they believed was dangerous to others, not to mention emotionally punishing to themselves. He found (to his astonishment) that normal people could be induced to apply potentially deathly shocks to strangers simply by being told it was okay to do so, even expected, by a figure of authority or by a group. He concluded that ordinary individuals are extremely vulnerable to being swayed by social factors, even to the point of violating their own morality (Milgram 1964). Running his experiment a myriad of different ways, he found that a key factor to this behaviour was the proximity of the people affected, i.e., it mattered greatly whether the victim was sitting with them elbow to elbow or in another room (Milgram 1965).
Ainslie and Haslam (1992) also describe why we engage in long term self-destructive behaviours , such as smoking, in distance terms. Further, they claim that such choices are normal rather than pathological, and that living according to longitudinally consistent beliefs, rather than in the moment, is an effortfully learned skill. They relate their notion of hyperbolic discounting to an economic model, Hernstein's Matching Law, which is described by a hyperbola which rises sharply rather than gradually as time proceeds, reflecting the prediction that we will choose poorer, earlier alternatives simply because they are at hand until the time to reward (or consequence) is imminent. "Reward values are proportional to the size of the reward at long delays (and) rise sharply as delay approaches zero" (p. 67). In other words, the reward value of watching the road vs. reading a text message on your phone rises sharply as you approach that school bus in front of you.
Boys and Girls of Steel
The fourth notion, invulnerability, is so well documented among the young there is an instrument called the Adolescent Invulnerability Scale. This test breaks invulnerability down even further, into two distinct types: danger invulnerability (I won't get hurt physically) and psychological invulnerability (I won't get hurt emotionally) (p. 392). In 2009, Ravert and Zimet used the scale to study 245 male and female college students, setting their sexual histories, belief in personal risk of HIV and general invulnerability beliefs against their willingness to be vaccinated for HIV. Predictably, the higher the danger invulnerability rating of the student, the less likely they were to feel they needed vaccination, regardless of their perceived susceptibility or number of sexual partners. Those with high psychological invulnerability, contrarily, were more like to accept it regardless of these factors (the authors put this down to to their discounting of the fear being stigmatized for taking an HIV vaccine, i.e., they were more accepting of it because they just didn't care what people thought) (p.397). The study therefore supports the folk notion that our self-perceived Supermen and Superwomen, at least in terms of danger invulnerability, are more prone to high risk behaviour.
While these psychological underpinnings of TWM are compelling in themselves, there is another trick of the brain likely at play. It is suggested by the similarity in behaviour of those walking while texting to another cultural touchstone, the Zombie and its real life counterpart, the sleepwalker.
In his analysis of sleepwalking, MIT sleep researcher Alan Hobson (1994) describes a state of consciousness in which part of the brain is asleep while another is nominally awake. "When sleepwalking occurs in the sleep lab, the electrode recordings reveal a profound dissociation... The upper part of the sleepwalker's brain, the cognitive part, is in deep sleep, while the lower part, the motor part, is awake. The sleepwalker is in two states at once" (pp. 254-255). The awake part gets an idea and pursues it, like a zombie in search of flesh, but the asleep part, which includes the later-evolved cerebral cortex and executive functions which control and inhibit behaviour, is missing in action. This analysis is echoed by Dr. Frank Ervin, a psychiatrist testifying at the 1987 trial of Ken Parks, a 23 year old Pickering, Ontario resident who attacked his in-laws, killing his father in law, during a sleepwalking episode and was released due to his lack of conscious awareness of what he was doing.
"We put our recording electrodes on the top of the head after all so we are
looking at the cortical matter and what is happening there. That part of
the brain is effectively in coma, that is, it is highly synchronized, very
slow. It looks like the ocean waves rolling along, suggesting that all
those nerve cells are no longer doing their busy integrated -- or they are
cut off. They are not working. What is left? What is left is those deep
structures evolved some time back, evolved very competently in lower
animals to handle the whole set of problems of moving about in the
world and responding to stimuli reflexly [sic] more or less, going places,
eating things, doing things and so on."
(R. v. Parks, 1992, p. 25)
The full range of activities Parks engaged in while asleep was staggering: having fallen asleep on the couch, he rose and remembered promising to fix his in-laws' furnace. He got partially dressed, started the car and drove all the way to Scarborough obeying all traffic signals, activities so familiar he could, apparently, do them in his sleep. Upon arrival, he parked in the driveway, took a tire iron from the trunk of his car (perhaps he thought it was wrench?) and entered their house. It was not until his in-laws found him and asked what he was doing that he had to deal with input that was novel. The novelty of the input confused him and he reacted as if being attacked, defending himself with the tire iron and, later on, a knife from their kitchen, with which he injured his own hand in the struggle by grabbing the blade without knowing it. It was not until he was driving back home that his executive functions began to wake up and he noticed his bloody hand, triggering a vague sense of recall of the whole incident. He drove to a police station and incoherently confessed to the murders (Glancy, Bradford, & Fedak, 2002, p. 542; Ramsland n.d.). Hobson concludes that without the top-down control from upper-brain networks, true consciousness is not possible.
It would seem that evolution has left us ill prepared for this junction in history. Our tendency to deny facts that are inconvenient for us, our misconceptions about multitasking, our relentless "need to know", our vulnerability to peer pressure and perceived invulnerability to danger, our tendency to discount to serious risks until they are right in our face, our short term placing of social stakes over physical ones combined with the new ever-presentness of our social circle and our ability to zone-out zombie style have led us to a place where perfectly healthy people regularly engage in extremely risky behaviour, too often with fatal consequences.
Jurisdictions around the world have reacted by passing laws against cell phone use in cars, whether for talking or texting. These bans generally allow hands free use, however, which studies show to be just as dangerous. A recent study of 62 countries showed that the only significant reductions in car crashes due to cell phone bans were in cities with lots of traffic; such bans did not reduce crash rates in smaller cities, leading study author Sheldon Jacobson to call for more emphasis on driver education (McGlaun, 2010). Celebrities have tried to rally popular sentiment to the cause: in 2010 media mogul Oprah Winfrey, supported by the Secretary of Education, started a campaign to make cars a "no phone zone" with uncertain results (Holt & Williams, 2010). Texting while using the sidewalk is even harder to legislate, though some have tried. In New Jersey since March 2012, police have been handing out $84 tickets to jaywalking texters, prodded by 74 crashes involving TWM pedestrians in 2011 (Mandel, 2012). New York City has stenciled the word "LOOK" onto the curbs of 110 dangerous intersections. Says City Transportation Department Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, New Yorkers are "driven to distraction with their smartphones, and the simple act of looking can prevent thousands of crashes and injuries every year" (Associated Press, Sept. 21, 2012) Even Apple Computers has tried to help by developing an "Email 'n Walk" iPhone app that lets people see the street ahead of them in the background while they text. Some cities have considered putting bumpers on telephone poles so walkers don't get injured when they bump into them (and sue the city, I suppose) (Anderson, 2012).
Such attempts are grabbing at straws, but reflect an awareness that will hopefully grow into something like the non-smoking movement of the last century, though with theatres introducing Tweeting sections, that seems a long way off. Unfortunately, it may not be until we get the moving sidewalks of The Jetson's cartoon or the introduction of hands free texting (thought chips, anyone?) that this problem will be resolved for good.
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