While I can disdainfully judge the texting driver, attention science shows how I might be doing the same thing without even realizing it.
I have lost count how many times a vehicle has nearly struck me as I’m running. The “joke” in junior high school, when I first began running on roads, was to run against the flow of traffic so that I could at least see what was going to hit me. More and more, I find that statement fairly accurate. Whether a dive into a ditch or a leap onto the uneven shoulder, it seems I veer from cars more than cars veer from me.
While diving to safety to avoid a swerving or swaying car, I have a heightened sense of awareness, as if time moves in slow motion. I often (not always, but often) watch as the driver swerves at the last minute with one hand and holds up the other hand in exasperation. In that hand–a cell phone. I am nearly a victim of attention.
I wouldn’t be alone. News stories every year feature pedestrians or runners struck by vehicles driven by individuals who were texting or looking at their phone at the time of the crash.
Consider the 2013 death of nineteen year old collegiate runner Phillip LaVallee who, on a run while home in Minnesota on break from South Dakota State University, was struck by a van while running. The van swerved across two lanes of traffic, traveling at 65 mph, to hit him. There was no evidence of an attempt to brake. At the time of impact, the driver had received a phone call from her husband. While the call itself went unanswered, the result was LaVallee’s death.
Or, consider the 2012 death of a 44-year-old runner, Kenneth Dorsey, from Norwalk, CT, who was struck by a sixteen year old driving an SUV. At the time of the accident, the driver was looking at images from her high school’s website. Dorsey was running along the shoulder when the driver veered and struck him.
The list goes on. I could be attention’s next victim.
But this is not a holier-than-thou accusal on my part, somehow believing these individuals who cause these deaths are evil. Because, as much as I have been on the near receiving end of a car bumper, I have also been that individual behind the wheel with phone in hand. And that’s where the science of attention gets interesting.
Recently I have been reading A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention by Matt Richtel. It is an analysis of emerging attention science in the midst of unparalleled technological advancement. All the while, the science of the book weaves together with the 2006 story of Reggie Shaw, then nineteen years old, who clipped a Saturn traveling the opposite direction and killed two men in the process. For two years, Shaw denied he had been texting, only to admit later that, in fact, he was, after evidence of phone records clearly showed his use at the time of the crash. Shaw’s was among the first cases in the United States to place texting and driving in the spotlight.
Two main facets of attention science that may explain how an irrational act like texting and driving could happen so prevalently are top down vs. bottom up attention and Moore’s law combined with Metcalfe’s law.
Top Down vs. Bottom Up Attention
Top down attention involves the conscious and focused effort we put into accomplishing our goals and objectives. It allows us to finalize a work project, finish a series of chores, or comprehend a book we are reading. Without this type of attention, we would would achieve very little due to lack of follow through.
Bottom up attention, on the other hand, is the unconscious, automatic capturing of our attention. For this we have no control. Perhaps we hear our name spoken in a crowd, something zooms past our field of vision, or a something chimes on our phone unexpectedly. Our attention is drawn, and we have no control (at least for a brief moment) over the response.
Here is how this works in practical terms. I drive an older vehicle that does not have built in GPS navigation. I rely on my phone. Furthermore, I have neglected to mount a stand for my phone on my dash, which means that, if I am curious about what lane to be in or where exactly to turn, I must glance down for a moment. All of this while I’m traveling amid other vehicles and pedestrians. All of this takes my top down attention.
Now, imagine that while I am following my GPS, I receive a text, phone call, or Facebook Messenger notification. I might be interrupted by a loud ding, the Walking Dead theme song (yes, my ring tone), or a curious chime that sounds like someone cracking a whip with a bell at the end. Each of these are unexpected and capture my bottom up attention. Whether I want to or not, for that brief moment, my full attention is no longer on the road. If I choose to actually glance at the message, all the more attention (this time precious top down attention) is taken away from driving.
Moore’s Law vs. Metcalfe’s Law
Moore’s law is a technology maxim stating that computing power doubles every eighteen months to two years. Put simply, our technological power increases exponentially and far faster than the rate a human brain could ever evolve.
Metcalfe’s law has to do with telecommunications networks. In basic terms, his law says the more people, the more powerful the network. Put simply, our innate human need for connection creates powerful networks and increases capabilities within those networks.
When these two laws are combined, a critical question about attention emerges. One which Dr. Paul Atchley of psychology department at Kansas University has deep interest. Are increasingly faster and increasingly more powerful devices and networks hijacking the primitive instincts of our brains–instincts like the need for connection?
I have lost count of the number of times I have veered back across the median yellow line or the white lane line. The “joke” I’ve heard from others is, “That’s what rumble strips are for.”
Considerations like top down vs. bottom up attention as well as Moore’s law and Metcalfe’s law have me wondering whether I’ll be attention’s next victim. I just don’t know whether I’ll be the one behind the bumper or the one behind the wheel.
Let’s focus our top down attention on how we can solve this issue together.
Image credit: Lord Jim/flickr