Researchers don’t get out much

Initially I was very excited to come across a web article ( via Gizmodo) with this photo, shown here, of some very familiar surrounds: Red Square, on the campus of my employer, Western Washington University (WWU or Western).

Then, as I observed that this article was in response to a study conducted by WWU professor Ira Hyman, and that it will be published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, I was excited, because WWU is not primarily a research institution, and so it’s great for Western to get this kind of exposure.

Then I read the article. Excitement gone.

The gist of Professor Hyman’s work is that cell phone users are dangerously distracted while on the phone, as indicated by their having not paid much attention or even noticed a clown pedaling a unicycle in Red Square.

Seriously, Professor Hyman’s got mad credentials, but I read this and I was left wondering how a holder of a PhD in Psychology could be so utterly oblivious of human behavior constantly on display in his immediate environs.

Red Square, for anyone who has spent even a short time on campus (OMG! Hyman’s been working here for 18 years!), is a magnet for exhibitionists, especially on a sunny day, leaving no doubt that WWU is a liberal arts university. And, it’s not just liberals and artists who flock to this public square to juggle, dance, play instruments, and even streak on a regular basis. Several times throughout the year we get visited by Christian evangelicals carrying, no exaggeration, 30-foot high banners that read “REPENT OR YOU WILL BURN IN HELL”, and once a year we’re visited by the so-called Genocide Awareness Project, an exhibit by a pro-life group that equates abortion with genocide, showing very large photos of aborted fetuses in order to shock people.

As a commenter at LiveScience put it, reassuring me that I’m not alone in reacting like this:

What this study doesn’t take into account is that strange people and activities happen in Red Square ALL THE TIME. We’ve learned to tune it out because the “unusual” is usual to us. I mean, I saw the unicycle guy almost every day, and things happened such as the time where a friend of mine jumped a fence, tearing down horrifying abortion billboards posted all around Red Square.

To be honest, I believe this study would have been more valid had it been conducted somewhere central and well-populated which is not as familiar with odd people and events.

Professor Hyman, if you read this, I know I’m being a little harsh, and I actually happen to agree that cell phones CAN be dangerously distracting, but mostly I’m concerned about you. Please try to get out some more, spend some time actually observing the students you teach and the kind of campus they inhabit.

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