Invisible Gorillas in Black Leather

This blog entry was originally published in November, 2014

In June of 2001, I read an article in the New Yorker written by a then-marginally known Malcolm Gladwell. Since thatdeluxe-gorilla-costume time, Gladwell has gone on to be the toast of publishing – writing such bestsellers as The Tipping Point and Blink, among others, as well as ongoing contributions to the New Yorker and Slate magazines.

The riveting article, entitled Wrong Turn, ostensibly addressed the history of American driver behavior, from before padded dashboards and seat belts to the now-standard air bag.

But the psychologist in me immediately gravitated toward the article’s citings of Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris, whose psychology work at Harvard introduced the term inattentional blindness to the mainstream. As you might guess, inattentional blindness (also known as perceptual blindness) occurs where attention to one thing causes us to miss another detail that others would believe is blindingly obvious. The Rosetta Stone illustration and self-evaluation of this concept can be found on the site of Simon & Chabris:

By now, dear reader, you have probably already anticipated what you’ll find on the video and are in on the secret. But go ahead and try it on your friends and family for some perceptual self-assessment grins.

Responsible motorcyclists have been aware of inattentional blindness since the first motorcycle hit the road. And even if we didn’t know a specific term for drivers not paying attention, we hopefully anticipate any such eventuality. My creed in my Motorcycle Safety Foundation classes is that, at best, cars are attending to other cars. If you don’t have at least four tires, you’re at risk of falling into the inattentional blindness abyss. And it’s not just motorcycles, but bicycles, pedestrians, skateboarders, etc.

While Wrong Turn never mentions the word motorcycle, it should be easy to see the sobering applications. The Smart Phone has raised the inattentional blindness bar, bringing out the worst in the auto driver’s proclivity for cockpit bells & whistles. And while Gladwell makes mention of cell phones in 2001’s Wrong Turn, they were not nearly the everyday accoutrement that they are in 2014. Now, add to this the relatively recent and deadly confounding variable of text messaging…

The motorcycle industry seems on the cusp of fighting inattentional blindness fire with fire. Witness the Project Rushmore Harley-Davidsons with their built-in Bluetooth and voice-activated phone systems. That’ll show those car drivers who can win the least-tuned-in to their vehicular surroundings award.

I’m more from the school that you get on your motorcycle to get away from communication and modern electronics. Readers who know me, if only from my blog, know what a music junkie I am. Can’t get enough of the stuff. In the last two hours while writing this I’ve gone from The Buzzcocks to Duke Ellington to Weiss’ Sonata for Lute in D Minor. Go figure. But my point is that when I’m saddled up on a motorcycle, I’m (gasp!) music free. I have helmet-friendly ear buds, but I rarely use them. Everybody has a limited span of attention, and you need all of whatcha got when you’re motorcycling. I’d rather save my headbanging for Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit at a party than screaming my Kurt Cobain impression for an iPod audience made up of my helmeted self on a bike – resulting in the not-so-nice kind of headbanging due to a bounce off a texter’s car I failed to anticipate.

So please, dear reader – if you’re a motorcyclist, save the iTunes for a lonely two-lane road. And if you’re only a car driver : ) please tune in to your fellow road sharers – even if they’re not dressed as gorillas.

Link to Gladwell’s original Wrong Turn piece:

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