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Ig Nobel Prize Turns to Smartphone Zombies and the Plight of Modern Pedestrians

Are we like schools of fish? Ig Nobel Honors study on what happens when you introduce a distraction into the mix at a crossing like the Shibuya Scramble intersection.

The Sankei Shimbun

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The intersection at Shibuya Crossing - before the light turns.

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Our tendency to maintain just the right distance from each other may not be exclusive to humans. 

Fish that school in the ocean are also sensitive to the distance between them. The sensory organs that have developed on the sides of their bodies are believed to help keep them at a certain distance from nearby mates. 

These fish have a wide 330-degree field of vision that allows them to keep track of where their mates are, except those directly behind them. They also have a habit of repositioning themselves to an appropriate distance if they wander too far away. This means that even if a fish doesn’t get along with another fish in the same school, they can avoid bumping into each other.

Tourists visiting Japan are often astounded by the scramble crossing in Shibuya, Tokyo. Although as many as 3,000 people cross the white hatch-marked intersection at one time, none of them bump into each other. Tourists are often mesmerized by their apparent superhuman ability to avoid collisions.

But what happens when distraction is added to the mix? Hisashi Murakami, an assistant professor at Kyoto Institute of Technology, and members of his team investigated how smartphone zombies affect crowds of pedestrians.

When two groups were made to pass each other in normal conditions in the experiment, the pedestrians formed lanes and walked past each other smoothly. But when some became distracted by their smartphones, the pedestrians moved hastily to avoid collision, causing the lanes to become disrupted. 

Murakami and his team concluded that the risk of collision increases when pedestrians are not able to predict the actions of others. Their study, which is both laughter-evoking and thought-provoking, was awarded this year’s Ig Nobel Prize.

A gesture can reveal a lot about a person’s thoughts. In the olden days, it was Japanese etiquette to pull back the right shoulder and arm when passing by another person in a narrow alley to provide room for each other.

Nowadays, few people even bother to say “excuse me” when passing through, or “sorry” when they bump into each other. With modern man, it’s hard to predict someone’s behavior even a second ahead of time.

It’s known that car automation technology has gotten much of its inspiration from schooling fish behavior. Meanwhile, modern man has a narrow visual field and this study reminds us that our “sensors” are questionable.

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(Read the Sankei Shimbun column in Japanese at this link.)

Author: The Sankei Shimbun