In which we walked home, did not have to face heartbreak and found occasion to be discussing cognitive bias and forming proper perspective.

Crossing the street

My daughter (then likely eight years old) and I were standing on the sidewalk at the traffic light of the intersection, waiting. There were two lanes of traffic going one way and another two lanes going the other. It was late afternoon, a busy day. Finally, the lights changed and cars came to a stop.

Our walk signal turned on, we waited a moment to look both ways, then stepped off the sidewalk. My little girl was excited and distracted, telling me about her day at school. I kept looking ahead, observing traffic. There were some cars going in the same direction as we were — and it looked like a white pickup truck was coming our way. Based on the turn signal, they were going to take a left turn, into our lanes. I assumed they were going to wait until we were past. We kept going.

As we stepped into the middle of the first lane, I suddenly realized that the white pickup was not slowing down at all. My daughter was a little ahead of me. I reached out with my left arm, placed my hand on her shoulder and pulled her back – as I took a step forward.

That is when the driver became aware of our presence and realized his mistake. He stepped on the brake, slowed and stopped in front of us. It all happened fast. He opened his window, he and I made eye contact, we nodded at each other, communicating a complex mix of emotions (we were okay, he was clearly both startled and relieved) — then he finished his turn, accelerated and continued down the road to our right.

We rushed the rest of the way across the street and paused for a moment. I realized, she had become very quiet. I looked at her.

“Are you okay?”

“Daddy! Thank you!”

I just smiled back at her.

“You saved me!”

“Yeah, of course!”

Her eyes opened wide.

“That guy was trying to kill me!”

I chuckled. “No, I don’t think so.”

That is just not very likely.

Hanlon’s Razor

As far as I know, my little girl has no enemies. We do not know anyone with a white pickup who has reason to be really angry at us, in fact so angry, they would decide to try to run us over with their vehicle — and then really go for it. It is possible that there are people out there who just like to run people over, especially in broad daylight. Perhaps one such person was just waiting at this intersection to take a shot at an unsuspecting child. It is just exceedingly unlikely that we would have found ourselves in that situation at that precise time that afternoon.

A philosophical razor is a thinking aid. Hanlon’s razor goes like this:

Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.

She turned and smiled at me. “So the driver was just stupid?”

“No! Well, not necessarily.”

It is tempting to think, but there is probably more to it.

Idiot Drivers

I discovered the term idiot-driver reflex in Amanda Ripley’s High Conflict. Here is the definition from the book:

Idiot-driver reflex. The human tendency to blame other people’s behavior on their intrinsic character flaws — and attribute our own behavior to the circumstances we find ourselves in. Also known as the fundamental attribution error.

Idiot-driver reflex describes the first part of that neatly: Someone cuts you off in traffic, you may well reflexively think to yourself (or exclaim to the person next to you, on the passenger seat): What an idiot! This resonates especially well in traffic. You see cars moving in other lanes, you observe their behaviors and sometimes you have to adjust your own driving because of it. You see all of that, but of course you usually do not see what is going on in those cars. You know little about the people in those cars, nor what is going on in their lives and what is on their minds. You are missing a lot of information.

On the other hand, what if you are the one, who is making the mistake? There may not be an excuse, but I bet you can explain it — and the explanation usually does not involve you being evil or dumb. Rather, perhaps you are in pain or in a terrible rush, because of a very legitimate reason.


“Yeah, sweetie?

“I’m tired. Can I have a snack, when we get home?”

“Of course . . .”

We might have had extra ice cream for dessert in the evening.

Matters of perspective

It is fun to explore the right ways of looking to explain a situation. Of course, none of that would have mattered, if tragedy had struck that afternoon.

First, pay attention.


One response to “Perspective up close”

  1. […] recalled this blog post and thought idiot drivers — a favorite label reminding me of a fundamental attribution error, […]

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