Monday, August 25, 2008

Traffic explained

There have been lately quite a few books that try to explain human behavior not as an expression of rational decisions but as a reflection of irrational but explainable patterns and decisions (e.g. “Nudge”, “Predictably Irrational”).

The book “Traffic” by Tom Vanderbilt falls into a similar category, he tries to explain human behavior around the phenomena of traffic. One of my favorite examples is the empirically derived observation that vehicles that see a cyclists wearing a helmet tend to pass closer than we they see a cyclist without a helmet. There are a few potential explanations:
  • Passing drivers may have read the helmet as a sign that there as less risk for the cyclist if they hit him
  • The helmet might have dehumanized the rider
  • Drivers read the helmet as a symbol of a more capable and predictable cyclist

Key Insight is that the helmet changed the behavior of passing drivers. What I love about this is that the scientist and psychologist Ian Walker set up this research project by mounting his Trek bicycle with an ultrasonic distance sensor and drove the same streets with different distances from the edge of the road, sometimes even dressed as a woman. He pursued all this effort to find out how his behavior and “personality” changed the behavior of passing drivers.

This example just shows again that we marketers are still not innovative enough in setting up consumer studies to truly understand consumer behavior. Innovative scientists seem to be much more creative than most researchers in the marketing discipline. Vanderbilt’s book includes many more such fascinating research projects. It's worthwhile to read and it might motivate some of us to develop more interesting marketing research projects.


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