We’ve all been in bad relationships. And we’re probably in one right now—with our cell phone. We think we have more power than we do, but we’re actually being taken advantage of in “unseen ways,” according to New York Times reporter and best-selling author Matt Richtel.
Richtel, a Pulitzer Prize winner and author of A Deadly Wandering, shared thoughts about that relationship—and what’s happening in our heads when we use our phones behind the wheel—at the 2015 Toward Zero Deaths Conference in St. Cloud last week.
According to results of a 2012 survey from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, 84.4 percent of people say texting and driving is “completely unacceptable,” yet 36 percent admit to having read a text or e-mail message in the last 90 days while driving, and 27 percent have sent one. The alarming punch line, Richtel said, is that currently those numbers are up.
“How can there be such a disconnect between professed attitudes and behaviors?” Richtel asked. He posited that it’s sort of like smoking; we know it’s bad for us but can’t help doing it. Although we may not actually be addicted to our phones, what’s happening inside the brain of a cell phone user makes this disconnect easier to understand.
Because of our how our brains evolved from our “cave people” days, we’re conditioned to pay attention to external stimuli—for instance, a tap on the shoulder—that signal a possible threat or an opportunity, Richtel said. For a driver, “The ringing of the phone is a proverbial tap on the shoulder from anyone, anywhere in the world—and it’s by many measures just as impossible to ignore.”
When we’re driving, our brain’s prefrontal cortex—the part associated with judgment, concentration, and other executive functions—is focused on the road. But when we hear the ping from our phone, another part of our brain—the reptilian, less-evolved part—overrides it, Richtel said. “It’s a survival instinct.”
A volunteer from the audience demonstrated how difficult it is to concentrate on two different tasks simultaneously. “This is not a screed against technology,” Richtel stressed. “Technology is phenomenal. It has given us so many gifts. But it is getting ahead of the capacity of our brains to pay attention.”
Richtel offered several explanations for what’s going on between our phones and our brains. First is the basic mechanical issue—the sound of our phone’s ping hijacking our prefrontal cortex. The second relates to the kind of information our phone brings: “extremely powerful” social information. “This [value of social information] is so hardwired into us, some scientists say it might be encoded in our DNA,” Richtel said. “Until we understand this we’re not going to solve [the problem].”
Next, because so much of what we receive on our phones is spam, we might think that would discourage us from checking it. But no, Richtel said—“It’s just the opposite.” Experiments by behavioral psychologists on intermittent reinforcement demonstrate what some call the “slot machine phenomenon.” Applied to our phones, this worthless information is a powerful lure, Richtel said.
Finally, early science behind the feeling we get when we interact with our devices shows we get a dose of dopamine, known as the reward chemical. While our phone may not be a narcotic, it plays on the same principals, he said.
So, what can be done?
Richtel noted that tough laws with tough enforcement plus strong public education can lead to change, as we’ve seen with seat belt adherence and reductions in drunk driving. But this issue is different. “No one ever told anybody that it was a good idea to drive drunk or not wear a seat belt. But there are entire industries that are telling you it’s OK to stay connected behind the wheel.”
Hands-free options may not be a solution: recent research has shown that voice recognition systems cause very profound distractions for the driver, Richtel said.
“The difference between a crash that is deadly and no crash at all is the millisecond when you need your brain fully intact to respond…You don’t even have to be looking down. You can be distracted by a conversation.”
Richtel said he’d like to make a case for cell phone abstinence. When we’re behind the wheel of car, we’re taking up brain space focusing on the road. “This is a good reason to turn off the phone. Because once it rings…it gets hard to make a decision when some of your brain is otherwise occupied.”
Laws around technology use and driving are difficult to enforce, he said. Whether a driver is using a phone to dial, listen to music, or use navigation, for example, creates gray areas. And federal guidelines for in-vehicle interactive technology are voluntary; as a result, there’s little compliance. A more likely solution is enlisting the insurance industry, “which just might be the market force that counters the market force of the car companies,” he said.
Ultimately, the technology solution might be one that seems far-fetched: the driverless car. Quoting a colleague, Richtel noted, “They may pull the steering wheel out of our cold dead hands before they pull the phone out of our cold dead hands.”