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July 6, 2016

Watch for bikes! (expect the unexpected)

I live in Houston and I bike to work. That makes me part of a very, very small minority. It also puts me at risk. Close calls with car drivers are frequent (although mine are not as bad as some), and they invariably trigger a spike in my heart rate. I wish I was as controlled as others, but the reality is that these close encounters frequently generate a compelling need to swear. Which I mostly do in French, for added exoticism.
Some of these encounters seem intentional—with the driver making a point that, in their view, a bicycle doesn’t belong to the road and expressing this with tailgating me, passing too closely, or shouting. Luckily, I haven’t yet been the recipient of a brake check.
But, for the most part, these close calls appear to be unintentional: after a close call, as we hook up at the next light, most drivers will confess that they didn’t see me. Some will quickly take the blame and apologize. Others, however, will tell me it’s my fault: even in broad daylight, somehow, I get to hear how my jacket or helmet are too dark or how my lights are not bright enough.
If only I looked and behaved like a car, their thinking seems to go, we could have avoided this. Mine is different: get off the phone and pay attention. As it happens, there’s an element of truth in both these positions, and what we learn on the road might help us be better strategic thinkers.
Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons designed a psychology experiment that has become highly popular. They made a short film of two teams passing around basketballs while the players move around. One team wears black shirts, the other white. The researchers then show the film to students, asking them to count the number of passes by the white team, ignoring those by the black team. If you haven’t seen the video, check it out and count both the aerial and bounce passes.
The point of asking people to count passes is to get them to focus on one aspect of the action. But there’s something else going on: halfway through the video, an actor wearing a gorilla suit walks across the stage, pauses in its center, turns to face the camera, thumps his chest, and resumes walking. And, astonishingly, about half of the people who are shown the video do not see the gorilla! Chabris and Simons’ point is that at times we only have an illusion of attention, or inattentional blindness. So what? Well, several things:
Keep an open mind. Cabris and Simons’ book uses a number of examples—including that of highly trained pilots in simulators missing an obvious danger—to illustrate how seeing requires looking, but looking isn’t sufficient [p. 13]. In that sense, appropriate detection shares similarities with serendipity (the appreciation of the chance encounter of something valuable while looking for something else see Strategic Thinking in Complex Problem Solving [pp. 102–103]), which requires not just stumbling upon an unexpected result but also recognizing its value. Both depend on meeting a set (not just one) necessary and sufficient conditions. So, while you are focusing on a specific part of your task or problem, you should consider keeping some bandwidth to notice other elements that may pop up.
Experience what it means to be unexpected. In Chabris and Simons’ words: “the experience of being unexpected yourself might make you better able to notice similar unexpected events” [p. 16].
Increase the signal-to-noise ratio. “A motorist is less likely to collide with a person walking and bicycling if more people walk or bicycle” (source). That is, as the unexpected becomes more expected, it becomes more recognizable. So, on the road, you may want to get your friends to ride their bikes more.
Remove distractions. We have a finite amount of attention that we can bring to a task. If we do more than one thing at the time, this attention gets divided. If we are only confronted to expected events, this might not be a big deal, but if we’re challenged, then we can easily get in trouble. Driving, that means staying off the phone—and using a hands-free phones is almost as bad as using a regular phone [pp. 22–26]. Solving problems, that probably means eliminating all sorts of distractions to focus on one thing at a time. (This result holds even with experts operating in their domain of expertise and it’s not limited to visual cues, auditory ones are also affected.)
I’m afraid that I don’t have a general, actionable conclusion to these findings, apart from taking notice of our fallibility and taking it into account as we solve problems. Oh and, of course, actively looking out for bikes while you drive, too.