The improbable fruits of annoyance

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We’ve employed observational research here on the Channel 19 blog from time to time, most memorably (for us, and by that I mean me, of course) during the hard-hard times of early 2009, when we attempted to track freight volumes counting the numbers of trucks passing on the other side of the highway daily during our long commute to Overdrive‘s Tuscaloosa, Ala., offices from Birmingham. (Results, “A recovery of one’s own,” were published here.)

Stop Sign 7But none of that can come close to the painstaking, long-term observational research and reports of one John Trinkaus, current Professor Emeritus at the Zicklin Business School in NYC, who began building his notoriety in the area of behavioral research with an early-1980s study of driver behavior at stop signs. Essentially, Trinkaus documented then over more than a decade a shrinking respect for what the common stop sign represents, i.e. that an individual driving an automobile (or, rarely, a truck) on residential streets must in fact stop when confronted with one at an intersection. His final report on the subject, “Stop Sign Compliance: A Final Look,” published in 1997 in the journal Perceptual and Motor Skills, after his observations of the same residential intersections over the long period from his first study, showed that, over “a 17-year period, full stops declined from 37% to 1% and rolling stops from 34% to 2%.” In short, the stop sign at those intersections merely ceased to exist in the minds of the motorists traversing them, according to Trinkaus.

Improbable ResearchWhat all of Trinkaus’ research (which spanned a myriad different annoying aspects of human behavior) means was part of what Marc Abrahams, the man behind the mag Annals of Improbable Research, took up in an interview with NPR program Talk of the Nation radio host Flora Lichtman this past Friday. “Almost every time [Trinkaus] did that on any kind of behavior, the world got worse,” Abrahams told Lichtman. “So by the numbers, according to the counts that Professor Trinkaus has made personally, the world is going to hell.” (Abrahams’ journal published a 10-part series on Trinkaus’ body of work, accessible here.)

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While I don’t know if it’d make you feel any better about the driving behavior of your fellow interstate highway travelers if you were to become primarily an observer of phenomena whilst navigating the freight corridors of the fine old U – S – of – A, results I’m certain could well be inspiring, particularly from those of you with regular-route opportunities out there. How have instances of four-wheelers not using turn signals for lane changes between Atlanta and Knoxville during the month of September changed over the years? How many cut-offs can a truck owner-operator expect during December on I-65 between Nashville and Louisville? Just imagine the intelligence reports we could write!

A bigger question is begged, however: Could we use said intelligence?

Abrahams notes that nearly all of Trinkaus’ reports tend to document decline, a worsening or coarsening of human behavior measured by basic acceptable standards of human decency. So for him, perhaps the coping mechanism of building something useful out of the offending behavior — making visible and numerical the apparent decline of civilization, or at least of politeness — is a use unto itself. Or, heck, given how “data-driven” many seem to want our world to become, seeing the numbers could ping us back in the other direction. I don’t know about you, but I’ll certainly think about Trinkaus the next time I come to the stop sign at the end of my street…