Jumping red traffic lights

I had an interesting and unusual opportunity to Think about thinking whilst driving to work one morning this week; a traffic light at a road junction near my house had broken and, in the direction from which I approached the junction, was stuck on red.

Description=19th September 2006. Pic: Paul Rogers A traffic signal showing red.

Initially, of course, I didn’t know that the traffic light wasn’t working properly. I approached the junction, saw that the light was on red and stopped my car. I sat there for a few minutes, waiting, then for a minute  longer, then another minute…. At some point, after it seemed that I had sat waiting at the red light for too long, it occurred to me that something might not be right. But I couldn’t be certain that the traffic light was broken since there was no visible sign of damage to it. In this uncertain situation, I had to decide what to do next.

What’s happening with the thinking of someone in this situation?

My automatic, subconscious thinking System 1 has a sense of how long, typically, I would expect to wait at a red traffic light. As I sat waiting longer and longer at this red light, my System 1 would have identified a growing difference between its expectation and what was actually happening. This would initially have caused me to experience a subconscious sense of discomfort; if anyone had been measuring my heart rate or my skin conductance, those measurements would have been showing signs of increasing anxiety. I might even have begun to fidget and fiddle in the car as this tension grew, however initially I wouldn’t have been consciously aware of this.

At some point, the subconscious anxiety about how long I had been waiting relative to my expectation would have grown large enough to pop into my conscious thinking. Now, my conscious System 2 would be asking the questions: “Hey, shouldn’t this light have changed already? Could something be wrong with it?”

Waiting for the traffic light repairman

How long would you sit at a red traffic light that you thought might not be working properly before you took action? And what action would you take? What options would you even consider?

As I’ve reflected on this experience after the event, I’ve identified four possible options. Before you read them, tune in to your thinking; then, as you read the options, notice your instinctive reactions or judgements as your read each one:

  • Wait until the traffic light repairman arrives and fixes the traffic light.
  • Get out of the car and fix the traffic light myself.
  • Turn around and take an alternative route.
  • Drive through the junction even though the traffic light is red.

Blog 18 media traffic light repair

As I sat at the junction, did I consider each of these four options? My memory is that I only considered one option, the last one. This is the only option that I remember consciously thinking about.

Did my subconscious consider each of these four options? It’s not possible to say for certain, however, given what we know about System 1, it’s reasonable to believe that it might have considered and quickly discarded the first two options. As you read each of the first two options, you might have experienced yourself making an immediate judgement, something like: “Don’t be ridiculous!” If so, that’s the result of your System 1 very quickly considering and rejecting those options. How?

  • Although we don’t know exactly how long it will take for the traffic light repairman to arrive, our intuition, which in this situation might be based on our past experiences of waiting for repairmen, tells us that it will certainly be longer than we’re willing to wait. This is an easy exercise for System 1 in comparing past experiences with current desires.
  • Intuitively, we know that we have no experience of fixing traffic light ourselves. We’ve never even seen the internal workings of a traffic light. We can imagine that the traffic light’s workings might be complicated, even baffling. Our associative System 1 might recall occasions when we’ve looked at the inside of other electronic devices or machines and been aware that we have no idea how they work. This is another easy decision for System 1 based on our past experiences.

The key point for these two first options is that we probably did consider them and reject them, very quickly and without even consciously thinking about them. In our daily lives, how often does our System 1 consider an option and reject it without us being consciously aware of it? Under what circumstances might this cause us a problem?

Jumping red

Finally, what are the factors that shape our thinking as we consider jumping the red traffic light? Here are a few:

  • The automatic association in our subconscious between red lights (external stimulus) and stopping and waiting (learned response) that was described above.
  • Our beliefs about breaking the law (since it’s technically still illegal to jump a red traffic light even if it’s broken and stuck on red).
  • Our beliefs about ourselves and our lives. (“I mustn’t be late for work!“)
  • Our herd mentality and predisposition to conform to the social norm. (“Will anyone see me as I jump this red traffic light? What will they think?“)
  • Available, relevant information, such as what signals are the traffic lights showing in the other directions, how busy is the junction, what are other cars doing.
  • Our assessment of the possible consequences for each available option. (“If I jump the red light, might I have an accident? What would happen if I did?”)
  • The emotions that we attached to and experience when we consider each of the things listed above.

Of course, we’re not likely to encounter many broken traffic lights in our lives. However the point of using an example like this one is to learn something about how our thinking works and how we can translate this to some or many of our other decisions.

Within the ELECTIA approach to decision-making, the following questions are asked within the ELECTIA process for the steps Identifying ideas and options and Ruling options in or out:

  • What options exist? Which have I considered? What options exist that I have not considered?
  • Are there any options that I have ruled out too quickly?
  • What would be the possible consequences of my choosing each option?
  • What factors are influencing my assessment of the different options? Are they reasonable?
  • On what basis should I rule options in or out?

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