Street Smarts

The Pavement Politics 
of Avoiding Strangers

In less than 20 years, the majority of the world population will be living in cities. Way before that happens, though, we’ve already become skillful at a very subtle art: building invisible walls between ourselves. We do that through a variety of strategies, so to avoid any unintended contact with strangers.
Research now is focused on the impact of such tactics on the inevitable interactions of our daily lives. Thus, what kind of anti-social gymnastics we engage when commuting? How do we intuitively prevent sidewalk collisions? What may disturb this balance and cause us to have our noses broken?
Well, we probably won’t answer these questions to your full satisfaction, mind you. Mainly, because any number of scientific studies required to correctly determine the causes for such street strategy is still being developed through trial and error. And much hasn’t even been correctly formulated yet.
Also, even though most urbanites, which up to 2008 were evenly split with countryside dwellers, have been mastering these techniques out of the need for survival, few are even aware of what they do and why. We just learn very early on that we shouldn’t mess up with people we don’t know, period.
Finally, there’s a multitude of factors that do influence research on human behavior. And in talking about the millions of casual outdoor exchanges we go through in a single day, the element of randomness always accounts for a huge percentage in its final outcome.
(We’re now a few graphs deep into this theme, and the first doubts begin to creep in on whether we’ll be ever find a decent way out of this line of thought. Bear with us, for even if we’re not completely making up as we go along, there’s a part of this whole rationale that is, well, pretty irrational. Invisible walls? Casual interactions? Dear heavens.)
Anyway, let’s just get to the three main points of this post: what we do to prevent our so-called personal space to be invaded while commuting. How we avoid clashing with each other, and just like good ants, manage to navigate a limited space populated by hundreds of people. And how having prior information about which way someone will go, may make us unsure of how to respond to it.
‘Nonsocial transient behavior.’ That’s the subject of a study conducted by Yale University’s Esther Kim, to observe and try to determine ‘the unspoken rules and behaviors of commuters.’ Despite the fact that a lot of her findings are familiar to anyone who take public transportation, the research adds a lot to our empirical knowledge of the subject.
In fact, we may almost assume that every city resident has learned at least some of the skills necessary to conduct themselves in public, and minimize the possibilities of suffering an unexpected breach of their personal space. Apparently we do that as a second nature, regardless on whether the bus or subway is crowded, or even if there’s anyone next to us.
Kim spent three years compiling her data, through commuting trips across the U.S. and, at least initially, her conclusions are close to obvious. We do spend an enormous amount of energy trying to keep it to ourselves. One example? We rarely sit next to anyone, if there’s another empty seat available nearby.
We naturally avoid eye contact at all costs with each other. We would do anything to be left alone, and go to elaborate set pieces of well-rehearsed theater, to ‘justify’ our behavior. Thus we stretch our legs, pretend we’re sleeping, bury our faces in our newspapers and, the latest one, you guessed it, we check our cellphones.

But perhaps because the study doesn’t mention the typical New York City subway ride, some of the observed behavior Kim collected could be grounds for a fist fight any day of the week. For instance, she noticed that some would place large bags on the seat next to them. Sorry, but that may last exactly two minutes, before someone will say ‘Excuse me,’ and force them to action.
Or else. The same about looking out the window ‘with a blank stare to look crazy’ (yeah, right); pretending to be asleep (hello?); lying that the seat has already been taken (what’s this? a movie theater? Move over.) But the study is right about the main idea: to convince the interloper that it’s not worth waiting for the seat to be freed.
We do engage in an assortment of body language hints to discourage too much proximity, and we should as well, lest our nose not being broken on our way to a job interview. The study lands on its feet when it concludes that such subtle rituals are part of a pattern of seeking ‘social isolation in public spaces.’ In other words, when you’re out and about, it’s like you’re saying, get the hell away from me.

Anthropologists and behavior psychologists compare us to the big apes, in our social interactions and emotional responses to the world. Sociologists and research physicists, though, liken us to ants in their collective intelligence and ability to work together to accomplish a common goal.
(And just like ants, or chimpanzees, we too find ourselves increasingly needing to sort out complex scientific propositions we lack the academic qualifications to tackle. Our almost pathological pursuit of quirky subjects to entertain our readers is getting us closer to a complete debacle, we fear. And yet, as typical savants, we idiotically push on. Sick, really.)
Not Mehdi Moussaid of the Max Planck Institute, neither Dirk Helbing and Peter Molnar at the technology-driven ETH Zurich, thank goodness. Instead, they’re all engaged in a field that studies how pedestrians behave, an important knowledge to have whenever big crowds are present, and it’s necessary to predict their moves in case of emergency.
Dr. Moussaid, for example, analyzed what makes pedestrians take the right or the left, whenever another person is approaching. Such intuitive, and split-second, decision will determine whether the two will collide or move on, hardly noticing each other. Multiplied, their choice may reflect the behavior of a larger crowd, when confronted with the same situation.
Since walking, more than when confined to a train or car, offers the individual a choice, what makes a person to choose the direction to take may be turn into a model for reference in projects involving urban spaces. It’s generally understood that with ants, they take a moment to make sure the other is of the same kind, before deciding to slaughter it, or moving on, a choice usually made based on their sense of smell.
With humans, a much bigger array of possibilities may come into play. Even though there are, theoretically, only two choices to take, either right or left, other factors may contribute to a last minute decision that may cause, or avoid, a collision. Modeling such choices may help the development of more comprehensive street signs, for example, or crowd control strategies.
Understanding how pedestrians behave, which is apparently unrelated to culture, nationality and other more obvious factors, may someday help in the development of navigational systems for walking robots too.
Finally, imagine the consequences a few years down the road, as research into driver-less vehicles may also benefit from what may be learned from such experiments. It’s quite possible that in the near future, we may find ourselves having to explain to a judge that yes, it was our car, not us, the one to step on the battery and crash the department store window.

A recent paper, written by mathematician Jan Lorenz and sociologist Heiko Rahut, from the same ETH Zurich institution, came up with a curious conclusion: whereas a group of people are usually good at predicting another group’s behavior, once they’re given information about this other group, the accuracy of their guesses tend to diminish.
In the researchers’ words (and we know how you need them), crowd wisdom, ‘the statistical phenomenon by which individual biases cancel each other out,’ usually results in pretty accurate guesses. That is, until the participants are told about their peers’ guesses. Then, accuracy vanishes.
Hang on just a little longer, it’ll all make sense in a minute. In the first part of their experiment, Lorenz and Rahut asked 144 volunteers to individually guess ‘Switzerland’s population density, the length of its border with Italy, number of new immigrants to Zurich and how many crimes were committed in 2006.’
In further stages, some participants were informed about their peers’ guesses, while others remained making independent guesses, as prescribed by the theory, which by the way, was described in detail by James Surowiecki in his 2004 The Wisdom of Crowds.
As the researchers wrote in the paper, ‘the average answers of independent test subjects became more accurate,’ while those given privy information had a decline in the accuracy of their guesses. A startling conclusion emerged from the experiment: ‘truth becomes less central if social influence is allowed.’
The implication is obvious in markets and politics, ‘systems that rely on collective assessment,’ the study concludes. Given the right conditions, an intense campaign in the media, for instance, people tend to mistrust their initially unbiased guesses, and give in to the pressure.
Sadly, you may say that it all boils down to Joseph Goebbels: ‘If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.’ Either because we start second-guessing ourselves, or because we’re simply too tired of swimming against the tide, most of us finally concluded that it’s all too complicated and we’d better off saying yes. But please, say no.

One thought on “Street Smarts

  1. Collective intelligence. I like that particularly form of intelligence. Re. human benaviour, have you noticed that in the subway or on a train, we tell perfect stranger our story. You tell what you would never tell your closest friend. Excellent blog.


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