Beware of the Unicycling Clown


Mobile phones have reshaped how we communicate. But they’ve also come with a downside — the dangers of devoting our attention to our phone conversations when we should be focusing on something else, such as driving. In fact, as one study has shown (pdf), while we’re talking on our phones, we are generally unable to focus on much of anything else — driving or otherwise. Instead, we have a habit of withdrawing into our own little worlds, unable to notice on-coming traffic, errant pedestrians, unicycling clowns, or other potential hazards.

But let’s deal with that “unicycling clowns” one, first.

Outside of the circus, one doesn’t expect to see a clown pedaling away on a unicycle. That’s probably an understatement, and one that Dr. Ira E. Hyman, Jr., a professor of psychology at Western Washington University, was banking on.

According to the New York Times, Hyman wanted to measure the “inattentional blindness” — basically, the inability to see things because you’re not paying attention to them — which occurs when our minds are on our phone conversations. It may not seem obvious that this happens — after all, our mouths and ears are the ones in use when we are on the phone, leaving our eyes free to watch out for would-be dangers or other things which we’d hope one would notice. But as Hyman and others have theorized, this is hardly the case. While brainstorming ideas, a student mentioned that he knew how to unicycle (and owned one), and as luck would have it, Hyman for some reason owned a purple-and-yellow clown suit with big red clown shoes. So Hyman asked him to provide the unexpected.

Hyman and team observed roughly 350 people crossing through a pedestrian thoroughfare on campus, grouping them by what they were doing — walking with another person, walking along while speaking on a cell phone, walking alone while listening to music, or walking alone while doing neither of the other things mentioned. After passing through the area, the researchers asked of these pedestrians two questions: (1) “Did you see anything unusual?” and after, (2) “Did you see the unicycling clown?” The results demonstrated the inattentional blindness Hyman was hoping to measure.

Of those walking alone and not listening to music nor on their phones, only about one in three mentioned the clown unprompted, as did a similar percentage of music listeners. When asked about the clown specifically, 51% of those walking alone, doing nothing said that yes, they did remember the clown; 61% of those listening to music recalled the little show. The numbers were even better for those talking to friends — 60% could recall the clown unaided and 71% attested to noticing him when prompted.

But those on their phones? Only 8% mentioned the uncycling clown when asked if they saw anything unusual. Even with prompting, the numbers weren’t all that great — as the New York Times reported, even then, “only 25 percent of cellphone talkers remembered seeing a clown on a unicycle.” That’s less than the next worst group’s result without prompting.

Hyman’s study was published in the Journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology in 2010, and its findings extended beyond the inability to notice the tiny circus tenuously balanced on a single wheel. As Hyman told the Times, his data “shows that even during a simple task as walking, performance drops when talking on the cellphone. [People] are slow, less aware of their surroundings and weaving around more.” And unlike a unicycling clown, Hyman continued, cellphone-caused inattentional blindness may be no laughing matter: “It shows how much worse it would be if they were driving a car, which is a more complex task to manage.”

Unfortunately, Hyman’s study, per CNET, did not measure the use of hands-free devices.

Bonus Fact: A cousin of “inattentional blindness” is “selective attention,” which is easy to explain, but much more fun to demonstrate. Click here to watch a video which does it nicely.

From the ArchivesFeeling Buzzed: Ever think your cell phone is vibrating in your pocket — only to find that it’s not? You’re not alone.

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