Human propensity to take chance & multitask – even with fatal stakes ….

Are humans programmed to take chance ….multitask ……even when the chance could be fatal?

Why does the government need to give you a ticket if you choose not put a seat belt despite the unequivocal benefits of putting on the belt? Is the cost of ticket a bigger deterrent than actual benefit of putting seat belts; past three decades linked 60% of the fatalities to lack of seat belt.

With more technologically wired we get, we continue to take chance and live on the edge. Living on the edge doesn’t have to mean skydiving or deep sea explorations. People texting while driving the Avenues of Americas during rush hour could amount for one.

Don't be stupid



I would take a wild guess that the early Neanderthals had to divide their attention between only two things as long as one of them is to protect themselves from getting mauled by a wild beast. Multitasking has been the norm for the homo sapiens for ever …, what’s new?

Jeff Hawkins in “On Intelligence” says that we process information through our sensory hierarchies and based on the information, neocortex predicts what comes next. Our predictions are based on our prior experiences. That is the reasons we have heightened sense of attention when we do something for the first time and once we know the drill, we start to rely on our neocortex predictions.

So, this means that humans tend to rely more on their prediction capabilities based on prior experiences and that dependency grows with increase in experience, familiarity and knowledge. The cab driver on 6th avenue is able to multitask more efficiently than young college student driving in NYC for the first time.

Get this – what happens when our perceptual predictions fail? Accidents happen in case of driving while texting …..

Has anyone tabulated an algorithm for calculating an average human’s attention to task at hand based on surrounding factors and activities being multitasked?

Assuming all humans have similar prediction systems in their brain, what would be the attention “factor” for someone texting while jaywalking in NYC?

NOTE to governments and legal systems – if you want to save lives, laws, tickets and fines won’t do – its the neocortex, damn it!

Regardless of built in prediction systems in our head, what motivates us to take the chance? What came first – neocortex prediction system or our need (and in some cases want) to take chance and multitask? Despite oodles of research and conclusive studies on benefits of focusing 100% on the task at hand than multitasking, we continue to multitask in risky situations as well. Check out this talk about Winifred Gallagher on Rapt Attention.

Despite such research and proven benefits of attention and focus, we are programmed to multitask.

I did a poll last week on what some of the most intelligent folks – aka – my linkedin contacts think about fatal multitasking. Amazing most people concluded that this propensity has more to do with our social obligations and just because technology allows us to do rather than any ingrain human tendencies. Not surprisingly though, more men responded that it was a social contract than women, where as more women discarded this behavior as a side serving of technological evolution.

So, instead of focusing creating legal and monitory deterrents, I would say lets focus on technological innovation to support our neocortex prediction system to multitask. May be 100,000 years from now, our neocortex prediction system might be lot more accurate in calculating the odds of a drunk driver while you are texting on the road or of an unsuspected pedestrian while you are driving and updating your Facebook status.

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