Red lights, traffic jams and missed flights: what if it is time that manages us?

Reading time: 5 minutes

What do you do when you are at the wheel and, though you are already late for the first appointment of the day, you are forced to stop at a red light, excluding the possibility to attempt a lucky crossing?

Near red lights and stop signs, we tend to stop at an extreme proximity to the vehicle in front of us, because we think we have a higher chance to cross the intersection before the light turns to red again and we could arrive to our destination in less time, even if this substantially increased the risk of a rear-end collision.

I’m sorry to say that this is a wrongful belief.

Jonathan Boreyko, an American engineer, studied the phenomenon, recreating the traffic light scene on a test track, demonstrating that the drivers that stuck to the bumper of the vehicle in front of them did not proceed at a faster rate. Although they were closer to the traffic light, they actually spent more time starting again and the two factors cancelled each other. In other words: the more you try to hurry, the less time you save. Instead, the risk of accidents increases much more.

In the same way as car drivers, this reasoning applies even when dealing with writing and creative activities: impatience does not pay (almost never), even for those people that become unstoppable when they’re under pressure.

At first sight, even if it seems that productivity increases much more when there is the gun of deadlines aimed at the temple, hurrying to finish something has a cost that balances or surpasses the benefits: there is the risk to take even more time, working in a worse way, being more tired or damaging what has already been done. Stop when the time ends and you will learn self-discipline, continue and you will indulge your insecurity.

The sadness of missed flights

The regret of arriving late or not arriving at all is similar to what someone feels when they’re dealing with a flight.

Imagine that Mary and Andrea have to take two different flights, that depart from the same airport at the same time.

To reach the airport, they’re traveling in the same taxi, but, due to a traffic jam, they will arrive at the airport 30 minutes after the departing time of their flights.

Arrived at the airport, they will discover that Mary’s flight has departed in time; Andrea’s flight has instead departed with a delay of 25 minutes. Among the two, who is the most annoyed? Who is the saddest?

Facing this kind of situation, we tend to imagine alternative scenarios that could have happened, but didn’t, disassembling our past to rebuild the future that could have occurred.

Almost everyone says “Andrea”: having missed the flight for five minutes only, one could imagine he could have gotten on, if only a small action would have been different, maybe leaving slightly sooner…

Neurosciences have monitored the facial expressions of second and third placed athletes at the 1992 Olympics to evaluate how much the thought influenced their mood.

They saw that silver medalists were smiling less than bronze medalists. This effect is caused by the fact that the silver medalists arrived closer to victory, therefore it seemed much easier to think and imagine variables in their performance that would have led them to the first place, thus increasing regret. The bronze medalists, who were smiling more, arrived closer to their non-victory, therefore it was much easier for them to think about what could have possibly happened that would have led them outside the podium, the reason why they were smiling more.

The heuristics of simulation or counterfactual thought is capable of influencing the comprehension of events, others and their moods, but in an unbalanced way. Not by chance, this shortcut is derived from the heuristic of availability, interpreted as adopted way of remembering relevant information to the judgment activity. In the case of missed flights, in conclusion, the annoyances should have been equal for both passengers.

The next time you miss a train, a flight, you will be stuck in traffic or you won’t achieve the desired success in some competition… remember these heuristics, in order to use them at your own advantage and relieve in this way the pain of lateness or defeat…

Laura Mondino


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