Applied Cognitive Psychology recently published a study on one of the newest ways we, as humans, have found of obstructing traffic – walking while texting (WwT). I, myself, have been guilty of WwT, but I’ve recently resolved to curb my “mobile” texting habits because, to be honest, I find the practice incredibly annoying.
Adepts of WwT tend to walk slowly and aimlessly, which makes them very hard to pass on the sidewalk. Granted, they mostly just endanger themselves, but their lack of spatial awareness makes them a hazard nonetheless. As you can tell, my feelings on the subject are rather strong, so I was tickled when I read the title of the following study: “Practicing Safe Text: the impact of Texting on Walking Behaviour.”
In this study, the researchers, headed by Dr. Stacy M. Lopresti-Goodman of Marymount University, looked at how walking while texting alters an individual’s own walking behaviour. The researchers found that, on average, people who engaged in WwT were much more cautious than walkers who weren’t texting. Despite this excess in caution, “texters” did not avoid obstacles with more ease than “non-texters.” The scientists concluded that being overly cautious while texting does not decrease the chances of being involved in an accident.
In 2010, The Pew Research Center reported that 17% of adult Americans admit to having bumped into objects while texting. Other studies have shown that walking while using the phone, to carry on a conversation or to text, can lead to unsafe pedestrian behaviours (Stavrinos et al., 2011; Stavrinos et al., 2009).
In order to gain insight into the behaviours of those who chose to engage in WwT, the researchers set up a lab experiment in which 25 participants had to walk through a doorway.
Warren and Whang (1987) demonstrated that, when navigating a doorway, an individual will use his or her own shoulder width to assess whether the doorway can be approached head-on. This is referred to as the “passability” of the doorway.
They found that, on average, taller people with wider shoulders rotate their shoulders more often to get through a doorway than shorter people with smaller shoulders. More importantly, they figured out that if a doorway is 130% that of an individual’s shoulder width, then the individual will feel comfortable enough to walk straight through the doorway, regardless of overall body size.
Based on this study, Dr. Lopresti-Goodman’s team expected to find that an individual’s ability to determine if a doorway is large enough to pass through safely would be affected by the distraction created by the act of texting.
They believed that this would lead to an increase in doorway frame collisions compared to participants who were not texting. Alternatively, they hypothesized that participants might overcompensate by being overly cautious, thus rotating their shoulders more often than they would otherwise.
All Participants, of which 22 were women and 3 were men, were assigned to either the texting condition or the non-texting condition. This was done to avoid having the participants think too much about the purpose of the study, which could cause them to adjust their behaviour accordingly.
Each participant, regardless of the condition to which they were assigned, had to walk through 11 doorways of different widths, ranging from 40 to 90 cm, three times while holding a phone with both hands at chest height, for a total of 33 trials per participant.
For those of you wondering, the fact that the sample was largely composed of women should not be cause for alarm, as the vast majority of multi-tasking studies have found that men and women suffer similarly when it comes to performing more than one task at once, regardless of the task at hand.
“Given these findings, I’d speculate that even if we had an equal number of men and woman (which would be hard to get at Marymount since we are 75% female and have very few male psych majors/minors), there wouldn’t be any differences,” explains Lopresti-Goodman.
The researchers found that texting participants walked at slower speeds than the non-texters did. In addition, texters did not try to squeeze through doorways that were less than 130% their shoulder width.
On the contrary, participants engaged in WwT rotated their shoulders more often and ended up walking sideways through doorways they could have easily cleared head-on. The researchers concluded that the texters compensated for the distraction that represented the act of texting by increasing their zone of safe passage.
The researchers suggest that, given previous studies’ results in which walkers using mobile phones were found to be involved in more accidents, the adoption of a larger zone of safe passage is not an effective strategy.
When asked about the conclusions of her study, Dr. Lopresti-Goodman explains that most people willingly admit to texting while driving or walking because they believe that they are acting more cautiously than they would otherwise. The statistics, however, tell a different story, says Lopresti-Goodman.
“It is because of the increased risk of accidents that laws have been passes that prohibit drivers from texting,” she says. “I’m not going to say that laws should be passed to prohibit walkers from texting as well, but I do think the public needs to be educated about the dangers of what many think is a harmless habit.”
So, do any of you plan to curb your dangerous texting habits? Personally, I think I’ll stick try to keep my shoulder rotation rates to a minimum.
A note on “Investigate Everything”: This article is part of a new series of science news stories I will be posting on this blog. “Investigate everything” refers to the surprising studies that use a scientific lens to investigate everyday occurrences or actions. The results will vary from the highly unexpected to the utterly predictable, but hopefully you will find them just as entertaining, regardless of the outcome. After all, in order to appreciate the groundbreaking, one should keep abreast of the banal. Hmm, that’s sort of catchy:
“Investigate Everything – Keeping abreast of the Banal”
Lopresti-Goodman, S. M., Rivera, A., & Dressel, C. (2012). Practicing Safe Text: the Impact of Texting on Walking Behavior Appl. Cognit. Psychol. DOI: 10.1002/acp.2846
Pew Research Center. (2010b). Mary Madden, Lee Rainie. Pew Internet and American Life Project. Adults and cell phone distractions. Retrieved from: http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2010/Cell-Phone-Distractions.aspx
Stavrinos, D., Byington, K. W., & Schwebel, D. C. (2009). Effect of cell phone distraction on pediatric pedestrian injury risk. Pediatrics, 123, e179-e185.
Stavrinos, D., Byington, K. W., & Schwebel, D. C. (2011). Distracted walking: Cell phones increase injury risk for college pedestrians. Journal of Safety Research. doi:10.1016/j.jsr.2011.01.004
Warren, W. H., & Whang, S. (1987). Visual guidance of walking through apertures: Body-scaled information for affordances. Journal of Experimental Psychology. Human Perception and Performance, 13(3), 371–383.