Nidhi Pandey, a 17 year old girl died, after she was hit by a speeding bus in Dadar, Mumbai, on June 3, 2013. The Mumbai Police strongly believe that she was listening to music while crossing the road. As the Mumbai Mirror reports “Nidhi died around 10 am yesterday after she was hit by a private bus while crossing a road at Dadar TT. While her family denies she was wearing earphones at the time, the police believe it is highly likely that she was. Manisha Murumkar, sub-inspector, Matunga police station, said, “We strongly suspect that Nidhi was listening to music while crossing the road as she was found with her earphones plugged into her phone and both ear pieces near her ears.”
Prima facie it does seem that Nidhi was listening to music while crossing the road given the statement of the Mumbai Police, which claims to have reached the accident spot within ten minutes of the accident. “We reached the spot in 10 minutes and took her to Sion hospital in our police van. However, it was too late – Nidhi died before she could be admitted,” sub-inspector Murumkar told Mumbai Mirror. Given this, the conclusion one can draw is that Nidhi was so immersed in the music that she had no clue of the speeding bus.
But Nidhi Pandey was unlucky. There are so many people who have their earphones on and are listening to music while doing other important activities, like crossing the road, climbing onto trains and so on. A common sight these days is people smsing while walking on the pavement or even crossing the road. Then there are others who talk on their mobile phones while driving. The ‘smarter’ ones either use ear-phones or hands-free while speaking on their mobile phones while driving, thinking that using such gadgets makes the experience safe and risk-free.
But that is not the case. Christopher Charbis and Daniel Simons in their book The Invisible Gorilla – And Other Ways Our Intuition Deceives Us refer to this situation as inattentional deafness. “When people are focussing attention (visual and auditory) on (a) task…they are unlikely to notice something unexpected,” write the authors. So when people are engrossed listening to music while crossing the road, they are likely to miss the oncoming bus.
In fact Chabris and Simons conducted a very small experiment which has since then gone global. They made a small film which basically had students of Harvard University playing basketball. One team was wearing white and another team was wearing black.
After they had made the film, they ran a small experiment, where they asked volunteers to watch the film and count the number of passes made by the team wearing white, ignoring the passes made by the team wearing black.
Around a minute later, the volunteers were asked whether they had seen something else. Nearly half of them said they hadn’t seen anything else. But they had missed out on something major. As Daniel Kahneman writes in Thinking, Fast and Slow “The viewers of the film are instructed to count the number of passes made by the white team, ignoring the black players. This task is difficult and completely absorbing. Halfway through the video, a woman wearing a gorilla suit appears, crosses the court, thumps her chest, and moves on. The gorilla is in view for 9 seconds. Many thousands of people have seen the video, and about half of them do not notice anything unusual.”
As author Margaret Heffernan admits in Wilful Blindness – Why We Ignore the Obvious At Our Peril “The experiment has been shown repeatedly, around the world, in front of diverse audiences. I first saw it in Dublin, in an audience full of executives. Like them, I was so focussed on counting the passes I never saw the gorilla.”
In fact so stunning were the results that Chabiris and Simons did not believe the results initially. As Heffernan points out “Simons was so stunned by the results that he says that for several years afterwards, he still kept expecting people to spot the gorilla.”
So what happened here? Why did the people fail to see the obvious? As Kahneman writes “Intense focussing on a task can make people effectively blind, even to stimuli that normally attract attention…It is the counting task (counting the passes being made by the white team) – and especially the instruction to ignore one of the teams – that causes the blindness. No one who watches the video without the task would miss the gorilla….The authors (i.e. Chabris and Simons) note that the most remarkable observation of their study is that people find its results surprising. Indeed, the viewers who fail to see the gorilla are initially sure that it was not there – they cannot imagine missing such a striking event. The gorilla study illustrates two important facts about our minds: we can be blind to the obvious, and we are also blind to our blindness.”a
There was another experiment carried out by the Washington Post newspaper a few years back, with Grammy Award winning violinist Joshua David Bell being a part of it. At 7.51am on January 12, 2007, Bell started playing violin at the L’Enfant Plaza subway stop at Washington D.C in the United States. Bell had kept his violin cases open for donation as he played six classical pieces over the next 43 minutes. During the period 1097 people crossed him.
Gene Weingarten, a staff writer at the Washington Post, was the brain behind the experiment. After the experiment Weingarten asked Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, of what he thought would happen if a world famous violinist decided to play his violin incognito at rush hour time and with an audience of around 1000 odd people.
“Let’s assume that he is not recognised and just taken for granted as a street musician… Still, I don’t think that if he’s really good, he’s going to go unnoticed. He’d get a larger audience in Europe… but, okay, out of 1,000 people, my guess is there might be 35 or 40 who will recognize the quality for what it is. Maybe 75 to 100 will stop and spend some time listening,” replied Slatkin.
The actual result was very surprising and nowhere near what Slatkin thought it would be.
As Weingarten later wrote in the Washington Post “In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run — for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.”
And this for the same Joshua David Bell playing, whose concert tickets could cost as much as $100, and who earned as high as $1000 per minute, everytime he played. Weingstein was very disappointed with the way the experiment turned out. As he wrote “It’s what happens right after each piece ends: nothing. The music stops. The same people who hadn’t noticed him playing don’t notice that he has finished. No applause, no acknowledgement…If we can’t take the time out of our lives to stay a moment and listen to one of the best musicians on Earth play some of the best music ever written; if the surge of modern life so overpowers us that we are deaf and blind to something like that — then what else are we missing.”
But the people travelling through the subway stop had been inattentionally deaf to the great music being played. They were totally focused on boarding the Metro train from the station and were totally deaf to the great music being played around them. It was the same as what happens in the invisible gorilla experiment. People are so focussed on counting the passes that they totally miss the gorilla.
The basic point of these experiments is that multitasking is not something that human beings are good at, even though most of us do it all the time. One of the most the common multitasking situations is drivers using mobile phones while driving to talk, sms and these days even for posting something on Facebook. But as Charbis and Simons point out “the driving impairments caused by talking on a cell phone are comparable to the effects of driving while legally intoxicated.”
One solution that has emerged is the hands-free. Turns out a hands-free is equally bad. “Experiment after experiment has shown no benefit whatsoever for hands-free phones over handheld ones. In fact, legislation banning the use of handheld phones might even have the ironic effect of making people more confident that they can safely use a hands-free phone while driving,” write the authors. So while traffic police fines people for talking on their phones while driving, there is no punishment for talking using a hands-free or earphones for that matter.
Charbis and Simons summarise it best when they write”the main conclusion from studies of multitasking is that virtually nobody does it well: As a rule, it is more efficient to do tasks one at a time rather than simultaneously.” So the next time you are crossing the road, just cross the road, the music blaring through the earphone can wait for a few seconds.
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on June 5, 2013
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)