News Stories

Why Rubbernecking is Dangerous

Newswise - If you slow down to peer at an auto accident, you may be unable to avoid having an accident yourself for a few seconds afterwards, since you momentarily become deaf and blind. The same thing happens when you watch pornography on TV?you may not see or hear your partner for a few seconds after an erotic scene.

Psychologist David Zald says, "We observed that people fail to detect visual images that appeared one-fifth of a second after emotional images, whereas they can detect those images with little problem after neutral images." In other words, emotionally-charged information causes people to become almost blind and deaf to their surroundings for a few seconds after seeing it?enough time to have a dangerous auto accident.

Zald continues, "Anyone who has ever slowed down to look at an accident as they are driving by?or has been stuck behind someone who has?is familiar with the 'rubbernecking' effect. Even though we know we need to keep our eyes on the road, our emotions of concern, fear and curiosity cause us to stare out the window at the accident and slow to a crawl as we drive by." This creates dangerous driving conditions, not just because of the decrease in traffic speed, but also because of the blindness and deafness effect that occurs in drivers right afterwards. You could plow into the back of the car in front of you and literally not see it.

Zald and his colleagues studied the rubbernecking effect by showing subjects hundreds of pictures that included a mix of disturbing images mixed in with landscape or architectural photos. They were told to search the pictures for a particular image. An irrelevant, emotionally negative or neutral picture preceded the target image by two to eight items. The closer the negative pictures were to the target image, the more frequently the subject failed to spot it. In a later study, the researchers substituted erotic images for negative ones with the same result.

Zald says, "We think that there is essentially a bottleneck for information processing and if a certain type of stimulus captures attention, it can basically jam up that bottleneck so subsequent information can?t get through. It appears to happen involuntarily."

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Art credit: http://www.freeimages.co.uk

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