Applied Philosophy and Psychology: How to Stop Texting and Driving

One thing that blows my mind is the frequency with which I see people texting and driving.  It’s absolutely mind-bottling.  In fact, because of it, my mind has been put in a bottle several times.  It could be confirmation bias, but I swear 1 in 4 drivers I see are either texting or talking while driving. The other 3/4 are probably between texts or phone calls.

Anywho, I’m not trying to put myself on a moral high horse because I did do my share of texting and driving.  And here’s the crazy thing:  Like most people now, I knew it was dangerous!  So why did I persist for so long and why do others continue? And more importantly, how did I get myself to stop?

In this post I want to engage in a little moral persuasion using applied philosophy and psychology to try to help people stop texting and driving.  Basically, I’m going to recount how reframing facts about texting and driving got me to stop doing it.  Therefore, since I am a very large sample size, it will work for you too.  That’s science! 

Aside: In psychology there is something called the “framing effect”.  Basically, the idea is that the way information is presented to us can have strong effects on how we respond to it–regardless of the fact that the outcome is the same in both cases. Here’s one of the most common examples cited in the literature (which I’ve modified):

Suppose 600 people have ebola (thanks, Obama!).  Treatment A is predicted to save 200 hundred lives.  With Treatment B, 400 people are predicted to die.  Which do you choose?  

72% of people choose Treatment A.  Notice, however, that both treatments yield the same outcome.  Framing them as either negative or positive influences our choices (we avoid negative-sounding outcomes).

Another common (real world) example is the difference in fines vs discounts. For example, In situation A you have a bill for $100.00 and the company offers you a 10% discount for early payment.  In situation B you have a bill for $90.00 but there is a $10.00 fine for late payment.  In most studies where consumers or subjects are divided into two groups along the lines of the above scenario, people overwhelmingly respond to fines, but not to discounts.  That is, a greater proportion of those in the fine group paid their bills early than those in the discount group. Notice, of course, that the outcome is the same.  Only the way the information was presented changed.

So why am I talking about framing effect?  Because, as you’ll see below, one of the ways I got myself to stop texting and driving wasn’t through acquiring new information (most people already know it’s dangerous) rather it was through reframing the information.

Step 1:  Fact are so fun!
Lets get some facts on the table:  It’s 6 times more dangerous to text and drive than it is to drink and drive.  Think about it.  Not “6 times more dangerous than driving under normal conditions” but 6 times more dangerous than driving while drunk.

Fact 2: You are 3x more likely to get into an accident while texting and driving than baseline.

Meditate on those risks for a moment.

Step 2: What Think You? (The Reframing)
Think about how you morally appraise someone who drinks and drives.  What do you think of their character or at least the nature of their action?  They are deliberately putting the lives of others and their own life at risk.  Most people I know think people who drive drunk are doing something morally reprehensible. 

Now, think about someone who deliberately does something that is six times more dangerous to the lives of others (and their own life) than driving drunk.  If we were morally disapproving in the first case, what is our attitude in this case?  

A side consideration is that, although it’s a crappy excuse, people who drive drunk can at least claim their judgment was impaired when they decided to get in the car.  When someone texts while driving, the same claim cannot be made. The decision to text and drive is made with fully-functioning rational capacities. 

The upshot here is that, if we find drunk driving morally reprehensible then consistency requires that our moral judgment should be several times more severe toward those who consciously engage in even riskier behavior (even if we are the ones doing it). 

Step 3: Fix It for Me!
I really wish I could find the article I’m going to mention because I cite it often.  Anyway, there’s a philosopher of technology that makes an interesting argument about the peculiar nature of cellphone technology.  To illustrate this unique nature, think about our interactions with conventional tools.  Suppose, for example, you are sitting at your desk with a hammer or a stapler next to you. Would you feel compelled to use or glance at either every couple of minutes?  Probably not.  But cellphone (and ipad and laptop) technology is different.  It demands our attention.  You can’t just have a laptop or cellphone in front of you without constantly at least shifting your gaze to it and probably also having to check it for messages or surf the web.  We don’t do this with hammers (at least I don’t).

 I tell my students about this argument on the first day of each semester when I’m going over the syllabus.  They all nod their heads in agreement.  Then, after I’ve led them down the garden path, I spring upon them the real purpose of my referencing the article. I say: “And that’s why in my class you must put your phone in your bag.  You may not have it on your desk or in your pocket because you will look at it. We all agreed that it demands that you do! The policy is for your own good!”  (Gotcha!)

Pro tip: Always get your audience to explicitly agree to the position you will be using against them before you use it against them.

All this to say that if you want to stop texting while driving, when you get in your car you will have to turn your ringer off and put your phone somewhere you can’t see it.  I put my phone either in my backpack pocket or under my car seat.  Out of sight, out of mind.  

Step 4: Be a Judgmental Prick
This is the fun part.  In order to avoid relapse, I find it helpful to judge harshly anyone I see texting and driving.  When I see them, in my head I’m like, “what an idiot! they’re going to kill someone!  I can’t believe anyone could be so stupid as to text and drive!”. After being a judgmental pick about something I used to do, I’m much less likely to do it myself!  See! Sometimes being a judgmental asshole can be good! It saves lives, especially children’s lives.  Yes, that’s right–I said children’s lives.  

Pro tip: Whenever making a moral argument, always appeal to the lives and wellbeing of children.  It’s a time-tested tactic, without which no politician could ever make an argument.

And with that, I end.  If you are like I was and find yourself texting and driving even though you know better, I hope this article sends on the path to righteousness and saving children’s lives while being a judgmental asshole.

Let me know if it works for you! (So we can science).

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