What Do You Do When the Traffic Light Turns Yellow?
It’s possible that self-driving cars will obviate the need to ask questions about human decision-making behind the wheel, but until that happens there’s a lot of utility in figuring out why drivers drive in a certain way. Along these lines, a new study from a Alberto Megías and his collaborators at the University of Granada poses an interesting question: When a light turns yellow, what influences whether you decide to speed up or slow down?
Using a simulated environment, the researchers examined the rapid decisions participants made immediately after seeing advertisements with a picture that had a positive (e.g a romantic picture), negative (a mutilation), or neutral (a book) emotional valence. They found that negative emotions led to more cautious behavior.
Our results support the differential influence of emotional pictures (positive, negative, and neutral) displayed on central billboard advertisements. We found that a negative emotion aroused by these roadside advertisements made drivers brake more often than positive and neutral ones, which led drivers to be more cautious and to cross less often during a yellow traffic light. However, when drivers decided to cross the intersection, the negative advertisements increased their response time.
Megías believes that negative emotions make people more likely to envision negative outcomes, and that this makes them more cautious. While the study provides some evidence that it might be possible to induce certain behaviors through visual stimuli on the road, there are two things worth mentioning. First, it’s possible that running the red light, and thus avoiding the possibility that somebody rear-ends you, is the safer action. The point being that even if you could theoretically nudge people toward a certain behavior, it’s hard to know which behavior is optimal. Second, it’s probably good to be skeptical of any idea that hinges on drivers paying attention to distractions.
That said, I think eventually a kind of psychological urban design will become very popular. The opportunity to influence behavior through small changes to the environment is just too juicy of a low-hanging fruit. It could be 10, 20, or 50 years, but don’t be surprised if one day cities dedicate a lot of resources toward figuring out which small details can enhance public safety.
Megías, A., Di Stasi, L.L., Maldonado, A., Catena, A., & Cándido, A. (2013). Emotion-laden stimuli influence our reactions to traffic lights Transportation Research Part F DOI: 10.1016/j.trf.2013.09.017