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If you look at your smartphone while walking, you are an agent of chaos

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People walking in the street with their heads buried in their smartphones are not only slowing down. An experiment conducted by Japanese researchers reveals how a few distracted walkers can indeed disrupt the movements of a whole crowd.

Crowd movements under the microscope

Humans use a variety of visual cues to anticipate the movements of others. Also, as you walk on a crowded sidewalk or cross a zebra crossing during rush hour, the path you are following is no accident. A simple journey through the crowd is indeed much more like a dance that we perform with those around us.

Hisashi Murakami, Kyoto Institute of Technology, asked himself the following question: what if a single individual’s attention was disrupted? To find out, with his team, they performed a series of outdoor experiments on the University of Tokyo campus, filming two groups of students in a walkway about nine meters long.

Within the framework of these experiences, the two groups were first asked to walk towards each other at a normal pace. During the meeting, all the students then intuitively performed a maneuver that crowd specialists know well: they formed tracks. Concretely, when a person in front of a group made their way through the group coming in front, the others followed behind, thus creating several bands of walkers who crossed each other.

Chaos agents armed with smartphones

The researchers then asked three of the students to perform a task on their smartphones as they walked, which kept the subjects gaze downward rather than forward.

When these students were placed at the back of their group, the distraction did not affect how the groups passed each other. On the other hand, once at the front, the researchers pointed out a marked slowdown in the walking pace of all the groupss.

On the one hand, distracted walkers would stride sideways to dodge others, but they also induced this behavior in others. Some were moving in a more jerky way than they normally would have. According to the authors, paying attention to your smartphone indeed deprives others of the information contained in our eyes.

At the end of these experiments, it finally appeared that a few people who did not pay their full attention to navigation could change the behavior of a crowd of more than fifty people.

As more people use smartphones and other devices that help distract us, it may be necessary for architects and city planners concerned with the movement of crowds to consider these new behaviors, the researchers say. In the meantime, remember to look up!


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