CONTACTTRAFFICABOUT TOM VANDERBILTOTHER WRITING CONTACT ABOUT THE BOOK

The Sense of Being Stared At (in the car)

As we’re on the topic of curious psychological effects, have you ever, as a passenger in a car, stared to the side, at a driver in the neighboring lane, and suddenly had them turn to face you?

This is a game I sometimes play when bored in the back of a taxi, and it can be quite disconcerting. I have often wondered: Am I simply remembering with greater frequency and fidelity those times when somebody actually looked back, and forgetting all the times they didn’t, invoking a sort of memory bias (e.g., because I think that people stare back I am primed to remember the times they actually do)?

The rogue psychologist Rupert Sheldrake has explored the “eyes in the back of the head” phenomenon (or what he calls the “non-visual detection of vision”) in his book The Sense of Being Stared At, which has occasioned a good amount of critical commentary. But, as Sheldrake has noted, the feeling that this sense exists is quite strong:

Most people have had the experience of turning round feeling that someone is looking at them from behind, and finding that this is the case. Most people have also had the converse experience. They can sometimes make people turn around by staring at them. In surveys in Europe and North America, between 70% and 97% of the people questioned said they had had personal experiences of these kinds (Braud et al., 1990; Sheldrake, 1994; Cottrell et al., 1996).

When I do in this car, of course, I am more properly considered to be alongside the other person, or just behind, so it’s perhaps not as much as a “non-visual” detection as a peripheral detection. But still, it seems quite powerful — what would make someone take their eyes off the road and return my glance? (another proviso here is that they may simply have been turning to look at my car, out of idle curiosity). Is it some primitive apparatus for detecting hazards? Is it that incredibly powerful ability we humans have (and which the non-human primates do not) to detect, and make, eye contact?

What’s interesting too is what happens once that driver in the other lane meets my eyes. Often, they look a bit startled, or uncomfortable, and I myself try to look away, having been uncomfortably caught out. This too has been examined by psychologists, as this piece in Scientific American notes:

In one version of the experiment, the research assistant pulled up in his motor scooter next to a car waiting at a red light and stared expressionlessly at the driver until the light turned green. In another version, the research assistant stood on the street corner, turned to face an approaching pedestrian, and again stared expressionlessly at this person’s face for an uncomfortable length of time.

As predicted, being stared at prompted people to ‘flee’ measurably faster than not being stared at. In the case of the motor scooter, car drivers who were in the staring condition stepped on the gas pedal harder when the light turned green than those in the control condition, as measured by the length of time it took them to cross the intersection. Likewise, pedestrians who were stared at also picked up their step.

In any case, I’m curious to hear from readers: Do you ever notice this effect? Are there any other explanations I’ve left out?

[del.icio.us] [Digg] [Facebook] [Google] [MySpace] [Slashdot] [StumbleUpon] [Yahoo!]

This entry was posted on Wednesday, May 20th, 2009 at 10:48 am and is filed under Etc., Traffic Culture, Traffic Psychology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

4 Responses to “The Sense of Being Stared At (in the car)”

  1. techne Says:

    IME the deciding factor is motion. When you turn your head in someone’s peripheral vision, they notice it and look, but by the time they look your head is not moving, so it looks like they have been staring at you when really they were caught in a glance. I played with this once by keeping my head stationary facing parallel cars–that is, I looked at people without moving my own head–and nobody looked. That is consistent with what neuroscientists know about the visual system. So I guess that would make it a “primitive apparatus for detecting hazards.”

  2. MattG Says:

    I am going to respectfully disagree with the above poster to the extent that it is possible to detect being “stared at” without any visual cues. Where’s my empirical evidence, you ask? I’d like you to meet my charming daughters…

    They will both pad silently into my room and stare at me until I wake up and look at them. The older one has frequently told me that she doesn’t say anything aloud because she “doesn’t want to wake up Mom.” How can I know she’s there? I suppose that I should ask her how often I fail to wake up, but I can’t imagine that she would leave until after she got her glass of water and tucked back in.

  3. Lee Hanna Says:

    I’ve noticed this in church, of all places. I will be looking at the altar– where the action is–, and someone in the row in front of me might turn around. My eyes are drawn to look at their face, and that seems to draw them to look at me. We both quickly glance away, of course.

  4. DavidM Says:

    I suspect the “feel someone staring at you” sense is most likely peripheral vision outside of our concious attention. But I think the reason we respond so viscerally to someone staring at us likely goes back to our genetic heritage as a “prey” animal. A face with two forward set eyes staring intently at you likely means a predator has locked on to you as a target. The fact that they are looking at you from the side or behind further emphasizes that this is not a ‘friendly’ stare.

    Specific to the car experience, we do seem to have an inflated sense of anonymity when we’re in a car. When a pedestrian or passenger in another car suddenly locks eyes with us, there is that awkward sensation that people can see you when you thought they could not. Especially when they’re staring at you because you just cut them off!

Leave a Reply

Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

Please send tips, news, research papers, links, photos (bad road signs, outrageous bumper stickers, spectacularly awful acts of driving or parking or anything traffic-related), or ideas for my Slate.com Transport column to me at: info@howwedrive.com.

For publicity inquiries, please contact Kate Runde at Vintage: krunde@randomhouse.com.

For editorial inquiries, please contact Zoe Pagnamenta at The Zoe Pagnamenta Agency: zoe@zpagency.com.

For speaking engagement inquiries, please contact
Kim Thornton at the Random House Speakers Bureau: rhspeakers@randomhouse.com.

Order Traffic from:

Amazon | B&N | Borders
Random House | Powell’s

[del.icio.us] [Digg] [Facebook] [Google] [MySpace] [Slashdot] [StumbleUpon] [Yahoo!]
U.S. Paperback UK Paperback
Traffic UK
Drive-on-the-left types can order the book from Amazon.co.uk.

For UK publicity enquiries please contact Rosie Glaisher at Penguin.

Upcoming Talks

April 9, 2008.
California Office of Traffic Safety Summit
San Francisco, CA.

May 19, 2009
University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies
Bloomington, MN

June 23, 2009
Driving Assessment 2009
Big Sky, Montana

June 26, 2009
PRI World Congress
Rotterdam, The Netherlands

June 27, 2009
Day of Architecture
Utrecht, The Netherlands

July 13, 2009
Association of Transportation Safety Information Professionals (ATSIP)
Phoenix, AZ.

August 12-14
Texas Department of Transportation “Save a Life Summit”
San Antonio, Texas

September 2, 2009
Governors Highway Safety Association Annual Meeting
Savannah, Georgia

September 11, 2009
Oregon Transportation Summit
Portland, Oregon

October 8
Honda R&D Americas
Raymond, Ohio

October 10-11
INFORMS Roundtable
San Diego, CA

October 21, 2009
California State University-San Bernardino, Leonard Transportation Center
San Bernardino, CA

November 5
Southern New England Planning Association Planning Conference
Uncasville, Connecticut

January 6
Texas Transportation Forum
Austin, TX

January 19
Yale University
(with Donald Shoup; details to come)

Monday, February 22
Yale University School of Architecture
Eero Saarinen Lecture

Friday, March 19
University of Delaware
Delaware Center for Transportation

April 5-7
University of Utah
Salt Lake City
McMurrin Lectureship

April 19
International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (Organization Management Workshop)
Austin, Texas

Monday, April 26
Edmonton Traffic Safety Conference
Edmonton, Canada

Monday, June 7
Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals
Niagara Falls, Ontario

Wednesday, July 6
Fondo de Prevención Vial
Bogotá, Colombia

Tuesday, August 31
Royal Automobile Club
Perth, Australia

Wednesday, September 1
Australasian Road Safety Conference
Canberra, Australia

Wednesday, September 22

Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s
Traffic Incident Management Enhancement Program
Statewide Conference
Wisconsin Dells, WI

Wednesday, October 20
Rutgers University
Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation
Piscataway, NJ

Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Ontario Injury Prevention Resource Centre
Injury Prevention Forum
Toronto

Monday, May 2
Idaho Public Driver Education Conference
Boise, Idaho

Tuesday, June 2, 2011
California Association of Cities
Costa Mesa, California

Sunday, August 21, 2011
American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Attitudes: Iniciativa Social de Audi
Madrid, Spain

April 16, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Gardens Theatre, QUT
Brisbane, Australia

April 17, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Centennial Plaza, Sydney
Sydney, Australia

April 19, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Melbourne Town Hall
Melbourne, Australia

January 30, 2013
University of Minnesota City Engineers Association Meeting
Minneapolis, MN

January 31, 2013
Metropolis and Mobile Life
School of Architecture, University of Toronto

February 22, 2013
ISL Engineering
Edmonton, Canada

March 1, 2013
Australian Road Summit
Melbourne, Australia

May 8, 2013
New York State Association of
Transportation Engineers
Rochester, NY

August 18, 2013
BoingBoing.com “Ingenuity” Conference
San Francisco, CA

September 26, 2013
TransComm 2013
(Meeting of American Association
of State Highway and Transportation
Officials’ Subcommittee on Transportation
Communications.
Grand Rapids MI

 

 

[del.icio.us] [Digg] [Facebook] [Google] [MySpace] [Slashdot] [StumbleUpon] [Yahoo!]
Twitter
May 2009
M T W T F S S
« Apr   Jun »
 123
45678910
11121314151617
18192021222324
25262728293031