Gapers delays, rubbernecking all about group behavior

A social scientist suggests that the human propensity for rubbernecking is all about group behavior:

“If we see that others are failing, we sense that we aren’t so badly off,” said Alexandre Enkerly, part time faculty member of Concordia’s sociology and anthropology department.

“The comparison helps us appreciate our own situation.”

Rubbernecking is a group activity; often people who wouldn’t normally do so partake just because everyone else has.

“The behaviour of a crowd is very different from the behaviour of an individual. When you get to the front and you can look, you do because other people have been too,” said Enkerly.

Two factors seem to be at work here:

1. We want to look at bad situations because it is a negative reference group, meaning that we compare favorably.

2. We want to look because others are looking. We assume people are looking because there is something worthwhile to see. Of course, our definitions of “worthwhile” might differ.

There is another way we could look at this: if you were trying to limit the number of instances of this on the road since this leads to traffic delays far beyond the actual accident or issue, what could you do? Here is one solution that I haven’t seen yet in the Chicago area: setting screens around a scene so there is nothing for people driving by to see.

The pinnacle of transportation-related annoyance may be that not only does rubbernecking take place along the route where the accident happens, but it can even cause severe jams in the lanes going the opposite direction. So a few years ago I had what I thought was a bright idea: how about setting up screens at accident sites to hide the scene and prevent gaping?

Finally, somebody is trying out this idea in practice. The Highways Agency in the U.K. has tested such screens. (For more see this, this, this, and this, which leads you to several other links.) The bottom line is that the screens are not perfect; for example, the barriers to which the screens have to be attached vary in size, which creates problems; the screens are vulnerable to wind; the decision about whether to deploy them must be made very rapidly; they have to be able to be set up quickly and safely, etc. Thus they are not suitable for all accident sites. However, as the links above indicate, test results have shown they are effective.

As a result, the screens were deployed for operational use in September 2010. The earliest reports have shown they indeed work…

This works by simply taking away the accident for people to see.

Is there a way to limit this without a screen? I know there have been experiments where people look up at the sky and others gather around them because they think something must be doing on but what about doing the reverse: there is something going on but enough people keep moving or don’t react and this influences others.

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