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2017

As if cell phone use in cars isn’t bad enough, car manufacturers are building distractions into our automobiles, which I affectionately call Built-in Automotive Driving Distraction SystemsTM.

 

Automakers now include more options to allow drivers to use social media, email and text. The technology is also becoming more complicated to use. Cars used to have a few buttons and knobs. Some vehicles now have as many as 50 buttons on the steering wheel and dashboard that are multi-functional. There are touch screens, voice commands, writing pads, heads-up displays on windshields and mirrors and 3-D computer-generated images (Lowy, 2017).

 

In an attempt to save lives, I have been hammering pretty hard on our inability to multi-task in my Intro Psych course. While this topic comes up in greater detail when I cover consciousness, I also embed examples of attention research in my coverage of research methods.

 

Correlation example

After I introduce the concept of correlations, I give my students 5 correlations, and ask them to identify the correlation as positive, negative, or no correlation. One of those correlations comes from a 2009 Stanford study reported by NBC News: people who multitask the most are the worst at it (“memory, ability to switch from one task to another, and being able to focus on a task”) (“Multitaskers, pay attention -- if you can,” 2009).

 

Experiment example

In talking about experimental design, I discuss David Strayer’s driving simulation research at the University of Utah. His lab’s research is easy for students to understand and the results carry a punch. I give this description to my students and ask them to identify the independent variable and the dependent variables.

In an experiment, "[p]articipants drove in a simulator while either talking or not talking on a hands-free cell phone." Those who were talking on a cell phone made more driving errors, such as swerving off the road or into the wrong lane, running a stoplight or stop sign, not stopping for a pedestrian in a crosswalk, than those who were not talking on a cell phone. Even more interestingly, those who were talking on a cellphone rated their driving in the simulator as safer as compared to those who weren't talking on a cellphone. In other words, those talking on the cellphone were less likely to be aware of the driving errors they were making (Sanbonmatsu, Strayer, Biondi, Behrends, & Moore, 2016).  

 

Class demo

When Yana Weinstein of LearningScientists.org posted a link to a blog she wrote on a task switching demo (Weinstein, 2017) to the Society for the Teaching of Psychology Facebook page, I thought, “Now this is what my research methods lecture was missing!” I encourage you to read Weinstein’s original demo once you’re done reading mine.  

I randomly divided my class into two groups. To do that I used a random team generator for Excel, but use whatever system you’d like. Weinstein does this demo with a within subjects design which, frankly, makes more sense than my between subjects design, but in my defense I’m also using this demo to help students understand the value of random assignment.  

 

One group of students recited numbers and letters sequentially (1 to 10 and then A to J). The other group recited them interleaved (1 A 2 B 3 C, etc.). In your instructions, be clear that students cannot write down the numbers/letters and just read them. That’s a different task!

 

Students worked in small groups. While one student recited, another student timed them with a cellphone stopwatch app. (You don’t have to know anything about cellphone stopwatch apps. Your students can handle it.) I didn’t bother dividing students into groups by task. In one group, there might have been three students who recited sequentially and a fourth student who recited interleaved.

 

I asked students to write down their times, and then I came around to each group and asked for those times. I just wrote the times on a piece of paper, and displayed the results using a doc camera. Almost everyone in the sequential condition recited the numbers/letters in under 6 seconds. Almost everyone in the interleaved condition took over 13 seconds.

 

In addition to talking about the independent variable (and experimental and control conditions) and the dependent variable, we talked about the value of random assignment. I had no idea who could do these tasks quickly or slowly. If 20% of them could do these tasks quickly, then random assignment would likely create two groups where the percentage of fast-task participants would be the same in each group. Is it possible that all of the fast-task participants ended up in the sequential task condition? Yep. And that’s one reason replication is important.

 

Oh. And when you’re studying or writing a paper, students, this is why you should keep your phone on silent and out of sight. If you keep looking at your phone for social media or text notifications, it’s going to take you a lot longer to finish your studying or finish writing your paper. Perhaps even twice as long.

 

And driving? As you switch back and forth from driving to phone (or from driving to Built-in Automotive Driving Distraction SystemsTM), it’s not going to take you twice as long to get to your destination. You’re traveling at the same speed, but you’re working with half the attention. That increases the chances that you will not get to your destination at all.  

 

A lot of what we cover in Intro Psych is important to the quality of students’ lives. Helping students see our inability to multitask is important in helping our students – and the people they are near them when they drive – stay alive.

 

References

 

Lowy, J. (2017, October 5). Technology crammed into cars worsens driver distraction. The Seattle Times. Seattle. Retrieved from https://www.seattletimes.com/nation-world/new-cars-increasingly-crammed-with-distracting-technology-2 

 

Multitaskers, pay attention -- if you can. (2009). Retrieved from http://www.nbcnews.com/id/32541721/ns/health-mental_health

 

Sanbonmatsu, D. M., Strayer, D. L., Biondi, F., Behrends, A. A., & Moore, S. M. (2016). Cell-phone use diminishes self-awareness of impaired driving. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 23(2), 617–623. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13423-015-0922-4

 

Weinstein, Y. (2017). The cost of task switching: A simple yet very powerful demonstration. Retrieved from http://www.learningscientists.org/blog/2017/7/28-1 

We humans have an overwhelming fear of death. That’s the core assumption of “terror management theory.” It presumes that, when confronted with reminders of our mortality, we display self-protective emotional and cognitive responses. Made to think about dying, we self-defensively cling tightly to our worldviews and prejudices.

 

On the assumption that dying is terrifying—that death is the great enemy to be avoided at all costs—medicine devotes enormous resources to avoiding death, even to extending life by inches. And should we be surprised? I love being alive and hope to have miles of purposeful life to go before I sleep.

 

So, do we have the worst of life yet to come? Are we right to view life’s end with despair?

 

Two psychological science literatures reassure us:

 

The first: The stability of well-being. Across the life span, people mostly report being satisfied and happy with their lives. Subjective well-being does not plummet in the post-65 years. In later life, stresses also become fewer and life becomes less of an emotional roller coaster.

 

The second: Human resilience. More than most people suppose, we humans adapt to change. Good events—even a lottery win—elate us for a time, but then we adapt and our normal mix of emotions returns. Bad events—even becoming paralyzed in an accident—devastate us, but only for a while. Both pleasures and tragedies have a surprisingly short half-life. Facing my increasing deafness, the reality of resilience is reassuring.

 

And now comes a third striking finding: Dying is less traumatic than people suppose. Amelia Goranson and her colleagues examined

  1.      blog posts of terminally ill cancer and ALS patients, and
  2.      last words of death row inmates before their execution.

Others, asked to simulate those posts and words, overly expressed messages filled with despair, anger, and anxiety. More than expected—and increasingly as death approached—the actual words of the dying expressed social connection, love, meaning, and faith.

 

Goranson and her colleagues presume (though it remains to be shown) that the same acceptance and positivity will be exhibited by those dying at the more expected time on the social clock—very late in life, when people (despite stereotypes of grumpy old men) tend to focus on the positive.

 

Thus, conclude the researchers, “death is more positive than people expect: Meeting the grim reaper may not be as grim as it seems.”

As y’all know, females and males are mostly alike—in overall intelligence, in physiology, and in how we perceive, learn, and remember. All but one of our chromosomes is unisex. Yet gender differences in mating, relating, and suffering are what grab our attention. And none more than the amazingly widespread and reliably observed gender difference in vulnerability to depression.

 

In this new Psychological Bulletin meta-analysis, Rachel Salk, Janet Hyde, and Lyn Abramson digest studies of gender and depression involving nearly 2 million people in 90 countries. The overall finding—that women are nearly twice as likely as men to be depressed—is what textbooks have reported. What’s more noteworthy and newsworthy, in addition to the universality of women’s greater risk of depression, is the even larger risk for girls during adolescence. As their figure, below, shows, the gender difference in major depression begins early—by puberty—and peaks in early adolescence.

 

The take-home lesson: For many girls, being 13- to 15-years-old can be a tough time of life.