That guy who is looking at his phone really is disrupting sidewalk traffic

Scientists who study the movements of crowds have found that what seems like a simple trip through a crowd is much more like a dance that we perform with those around us.

And so it might not come as too much of a surprise to learn that a person starting staring down at a phone, lost in a private world while walking, really messes with the vibe, according to a new study.

Humans  use a variety of visual cues to anticipate where other members of a crowd will go next, said Hisashi Murakami, the author of the paper.

He was curious what would happen if attention to those details were disrupted, and so, in a series of experiments at the University of Tokyo, he and his colleagues filmed two groups of students in a walkway 30 foot long.

The groups walked toward each other at a normal pace. When the groups met, the students intuitively performed a maneuver familiar to those who study crowds:

The formed lanes.

When a person at the front of one group found a way through the oncoming group, others fell in behind that person.

The researchers then asked three of the students to perform a task on their phones while they walked. When those students were placed at the back of their group, the distraction did not affect thee groups' movements.

But when the distracted walkers were at the front, everything slowed down, and it took longer for clear lanes to form. [Veronique Greenwood]


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