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Sue Frantz

Place Lag

Posted by Sue Frantz Dec 30, 2015

Place lag (n.): “[T]he imaginative drag that results from our jet-age displacements over every kind of distance; from the inability of our deep old sense of place to keep up with our airplanes.”

                              - Mark Vanhoenacker (2015), Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot


I am currently reading a rather poetic memoir by a 747 pilot. As someone who frequently changes place, Mark Vanhoenacker has spent much time reflecting on this experience. Anyone who has flown across time zones has experienced jet lag. But if you’re staying for a while, you adjust to the local time zone. Flight crews often don’t bother trying to change. If you’re there only for a day or two, it makes more sense to just stay on your home time.


Place lag, coined by Vanhoenacker, is different. Imagine starting your day in Seattle, flying several hours, and then getting off the plane in Tokyo. It’s disorienting. As Vanhoenacker notes, we aren’t built to experience this much cultural change in this short of time. Evolutionarily-speaking, we can easily handle gradual change that comes at the speed of walking. Anything that happens faster than that is much more difficult for our brains to process.


Why is this practically sudden change in location so disturbing? Any time we experience a cultural change, we encounter a new set of schemas. The more different those schemas are, the greater our culture shock. But even if we are familiar with the culture we have just been dropped into, it takes time to load the right cultural schemas. If you get to stay for a while, you have time to complete the processing. If you’re part of the international flight crew, though, you have only just started to load the right set, when you’re back on the plane headed to another part of the world with an entirely different set of schemas.


Of course we don’t have to travel halfway around the world to experience place lag. Your first generation college students may experience this when traveling between home and college – even commuter students. Their college lives are likely very different from their home lives. What is crucially important at college is not understood at all by family members who have not attended college. Ask your students, in pairs or small groups, to discuss schema differences between home and college. For example, are the kinds of conversations students have with other students different from the kinds of conversations they have with family members? Is the humor different? After discussion, invite students to share examples with the class.

In 1989, the woman I was dating and I walked out of a Kansas City gay bar at midnight. We had to cross a fairly desolate four-lane boulevard to get to my car. There were no crosswalks, and the nearest cross-streets were ¼ to ½ mile in either direction. There was no traffic coming from the left; from the right, there were three cars some distance away. We started across. She decided to stop midway and wait for them to pass. I jogged across. As I was putting my key in the car door, something caught my attention. I turned in time to see a pickup truck come from the previously-no-traffic left, move into the left lane, and hit her – intentionally. The driver continued to accelerate; the brake lights never flashed. Witnesses later reported that the truck had pulled out from the parking lot behind a nearby not-gay bar.


I ran to where she lay in the street. The truck’s bumper had caught her on the hip and she did a helicopter spin and landed flat, dispersing the energy across her entire body, instead of, say, just her head taking the brunt of the pavement. It is better to keep injured people where they are, unless it’s more dangerous to do so. On a very dark boulevard with oncoming traffic, I decided it was better for us to be on the sidewalk. I looked toward the bar we came from to discover that a group of people had gathered.  I issued a general call for help. No one moved. I thought, “The bystander effect!”


Jumping ahead to 2015, on Friday, December 11th during the very busy morning commute on a freeway here in the Greater Puget Sound Area, a public transportation bus with only a driver onboard traveling along with traffic displayed a disturbing message: “HELP! CALL 911.” (Full article here.)

There were hundreds of drivers on the road, which suggests not many would call because of diffusion of responsibility. We also don’t know how many saw the message. But the help message didn’t ask for a big intervention or time commitment: Just call 911.


The article reports that “several” people called.  One of whom was Robert Rode.  The article ends with:


Rode figured Friday’s display was a false alarm because the bus was traveling normally, but said he “wasn’t going to be a victim of the bystander effect and not call 911.”


I don’t know if Robert Rode took Intro Psych, but given the popularity of the course, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that that is where he learned about the bystander effect. I tell my students, “Now that you know how the bystander effect works, you have a moral obligation to help. You don’t have to personally jump in and participate, but there is no reason you can’t call 911.”

As for my 1989 self, I knew from the bystander effect research how to break the spell. I identified one person and asked for something specific: “You in the red sweatshirt! Go in and call 911!” As predicted, his fellow bystanders turned and looked at him. He was no longer a bystander, but a part of the action. Sure enough, he immediately went in and asked the bartender to make the call. His friends, now feeling involved by being connected to him, came out to the street and helped me move her to the sidewalk.

I contend that Intro Psych is one of the most important courses we have in our curriculum. What we teach in that course not only has the potential to improve lives, but to save lives.


Epilogue: She spent a few days in the hospital just badly bruised. To my knowledge the perpetrator was never apprehended.

Belief perseverance, holding onto your beliefs in the face of contradictory evidence, can be incredibly powerful. Here are a couple examples for your students.


Two people bring their new puppy, indeed the first dog they have ever owned, to the vet. When the vet tech comments on how cute he is, they are taken aback because they thought ‘he’ was a ‘she.’ The vet tech confirms that, no, indeed he is male. The vet tech points out the puppy’s penis and testicles. No, they insist, the dog is female. “I want to talk to a vet!” one of them says. The vet, unsurprisingly, says the same thing; the dog is male. The dog owners continue to argue with the vet that the dog is female. (Full story.)


At a movie theater, a couple customers are in front of the concessions counter talking about the popcorn. One of them insists that the popcorn is purchased by the theater already popped and delivered in big garbage bags. The concessions employee overhears them and makes a big show of putting unpopped kernels into the popper right behind the counter and turning it on. When the customers see this, one of them comments on how it’s just for show, that they only sell the stale, garbage-bag popcorn. The employee writes, “I guess some people just HAVE to believe that they’re getting ripped off, even when they aren’t.” (Full story.)


Your students who work with customers may have stories of their own to share.

If you teach Intro Psych, you know that most of your students are not psychology majors. This course gives us a captive audience to tell our future business leaders, medical personnel, government employees, etc. about psychology.


Susan Nolan (2015) in a recent talk identified teaching as one way we can inform the public of the value of psychological science. As instructors, we also have a responsibility to empower our students to be voices for psychological science in their communities. Here are some additional ways Nolan noted we can disseminate psychological science.


Writing for the general public. While not all of us can write trade books, we can write articles for newsletters and editorials for newspapers. And we can blog.


Talking to reporters. If you’re not happy with how news outlets cover psychological science, then it is time to leap in and help them out. Start with being a resource for the journalists of your institution’s student paper or your local paper.


Speaking to the community. Contact your local civic organizations or public library. Would they like to hear your most interesting lecture? Or start your own monthly Pub Science lecture series at your favorite neighborhood drinking establishment.


Volunteering your science skills. Become an “on-call scientist” to human rights organizations through AAAS. If you live in or around New York City, become an APA-appointed representative to the United Nations. Volunteer for the Statistics without Borders project of the American Statistical Association.


Serving the community. Run for your local school board or city council.


Harnessing social and mass media. If you use social media, explain the psychological science behind the hot topic issues to your friends and family. Or if you don’t want to do the explaining, leap onto Facebook or Twitter with links to websites that do the explaining for you.


What are you doing, outside of your classroom, to ensure that good psychological science is being delivered into the hands of the general public?


Nolan, S. A. (2015, July 24). Beyond the academy: Sharing psychological science in a global context. Lecture presented at Vancouver International Conference on the Teaching of Psychology in Coast Hotel Plaza and Suites, Vancouver, BC.

This question may appear on my next Intro Psych exam that includes coverage of the social psychology chapter.


If you want 2 points extra credit, answer A. If you want 6 points extra credit, answer B. But wait! You will only get the points if 90% or more of the class chooses 2 points. If less than 90% of the class chooses 2 points, no one will get any extra credit.


Dylan Selterman (2015) has given his University of Maryland students a similar challenge on their term papers. Since 2008, only one class has earned the extra credit.

Why bring this ‘tragedy of the commons’ (aka ‘prisoner’s dilemma) to our students in such a real-life way? We face similar choices all of the time. Finding a recycling bin is a little inconvenient but it the end we all benefit by having less trash in landfills. Shortening a shower means more water for all of us. Driving a little slower means less fuel consumption resulting in a reduced need to drill more oil wells.


Perhaps having this experience will make our students, the next time they are confronted with such a choice, avoid acting solely in their own best interest and instead choose to give up a little in the interest of benefitting everyone.


Selterman, D. (2015, July 20). Why I give my students a 'tragedy of the commons' extra credit challenge. Washington Post. Retrieved from