Jun 15
June 15, 2010 at 17:10

Traffic, Tom Vanderbilt

Traffic-TomVanderbiltWhy we drive the way we do (and what it says about us)

People familiar with 3Dimerce might know we are quite a car-savvy company, and, only very recently, I too joined the legion of motorists within 3Dimerce.

Among car enthusiasts like us, traffic is often considered just an inconvenient byproduct of everybody driving a car. We all have our assumptions about why we are the good drivers, and why everyone around us is messing things up. We keep making this fundamental attribution error again and again, thinking all others can’t drive and don’t pay attention, but always finding an excuse in circumstances for our own shortcomings.

Traffic busts all these assumptions – with scientific back up – and gets to the core of what really is happening when we hit the streets together. And it (sometimes painfully) exposes the blind spot every one has regarding his own behavior.

Why is it a good book?

First of all, it’s a mirror for everyone who participates in traffic, and car drivers in particular. As the subtitle says, it explains why we drive the way we do. That we constantly overestimate ourselves, but more important, which mechanisms are pushing us towards overestimating ourselves in such a grand manner.

Traffic also exposes a number of interesting paradoxes. For instance, situations that are considered to be safe often are more dangerous than situations that are perceived as very dangerous. It turns out that a dangerous situation invokes the necessary attention, where ’safe’ situations lull the driver into a false sense of being in control.

Why is it good for us?

As participating in traffic is all about taking in information and making decisions, Traffic spends a large section on how people distill information from their environment, and react to that. It covers this subject from the psychological and cognitive point of view, but also from the physiological side, in what happens in our eyes when photons hit the retina, and neurons fire their charges deeper into our brain. Traffic clearly shows that our eyes and our brains are not up to the task of information processing on a level that would actually be required to drive a car safely.

The nice thing for us is that these flaws in our perception and information processing capabilities can be used and exploited very well to serve a commercial purpose. We’re constantly seducing potential buyers into perceiving products as highly desirable, functional and of the utmost quality.

For example, it is much more difficult to determine the speed of moving objects than we think it is. Large things appear to move slower than small things when moving at the same speed. Which makes speeding SUVs even a little more dangerous, as they appear to approach you slower than they really are.

The lesson we can take from this is that if you can emphasize, exaggerate or even control the perceived speed, size or weight of a product, it is only a small step to manipulating the perceived quality or value of this product. Which is exactly what advertising is all about, and to which our product visualizations should contribute as much as possible.

Traffic is a very complex system, but Tom Vanderbilt manages to tie the many, many disciplines that play a role in understanding such a system together into one coherent story. In that respect it is a great inspiration in the art of understanding as well.

Read this book. Please!

Find it on Amazon, or read more on Tom Vanderbilts Blog: How We Drive.

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