Sociologist: phone call or text like “catnip” for humans

Amidst a larger conversation about using cell phones in vehicles, a sociologist gets at an interesting question: why can’t people resist the allure of cell phones?

The lure of multitasking may be, in at least one respect, more powerful for drivers than for other people, said Clifford Nass, a sociology professor at Stanford University who studies electronic distraction. Drivers are typically isolated and alone, he said, and humans are fundamentally social animals.

The ring of a phone or the ping of a text becomes a promise of human connection, which is “like catnip for humans,” Nass said.

“When you tap into a totally fundamental, universal human impulse,” he added, “it’s very hard to stop.”

Humans are indeed social animals and driving is uniquely isolating. On one hand, it is an oddly social activity as drivers must interact with other drivers and there is an interesting set of non-verbal interactions. On the other hand, one is in a sealed, moving vehicle and it may be one of the few regular moments people have where they are not near enough to talk to other people. Couldn’t someone examine this hypothesis by looking at how many cell phone caused or influenced car accidents took place when there was a solo driver?

It would be interesting to see how people respond to cell phones differently when alone opposed to in more social settings where they have opportunities to interact with people.

I imagine this could easily become a marketing campaign for cell phones: your phone is “a promise of human connection.” Indeed, a number of cell phone campaigns have stressed how they bring people together. The commercials might not add this but here is the kicker: sometimes this urge to make a human connection might be be problematic…

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