A theoretical physicist named Geoffrey West was studying population growth of various cities when he noticed something weird. Basically, every time a city doubled in population, there was an inevitable 15 percent increase in ... well, everything. The rate of crime, pollution, disease, good stuff like productivity and creativity, and bafflingly specific stuff like the speed at which people walk along sidewalks. Double the citizens, everything went up by almost exactly 15 percent no matter where he looked.
It's weird to think of human behavior as predictable. It's not like criminals read the latest census information, do some quick calculations and put on their murder gloves to go out and fill their quota. But it turns out that a lot of the things that annoy us about daily existence are governed by scientific laws and systems we're not even aware of.
You're sitting on the train, trying to concentrate on the notebook in which you're composing your latest rock opera, when the guy across from you pulls out his cell phone and starts a conversation: "I know ... Sure I did ... Well, did you try setting it on fire? ... Ha, tell him not on my watch ... No, I said did you try setting it on fire?" Unable to concentrate, you sit in silent rage until he hangs up and you're able to breathe again. And then he starts dialing again. What the fuck is that guy's problem?
Everything we know about morality tells us you would be justified in beating him to death with a tire iron.
What The Hell Is Going On Here?
The real question is why are you so annoyed by him? Take a moment to look around our hypothetical train car. There's the guy behind you trying to teach his girlfriend to pronounce "Doritos" with correct Spanish phonetics. There's the conductor announcing the name of the next stop for the third goddamn time. Why is the guy on the mobile phone the one who's starring in grisly crime scenes in your mind?
Our problem with public cell phone conversations has nothing to do with how cool he thinks he is, or even his stupid voice. It's all in our heads.
Above: Not what we meant.
Science has proven that hearing half a conversation, as you're forced to do when close to a cell phone user, is inherently more distracting to the human brain. In one experiment, people were asked to try to concentrate on a task in total silence, and then while overhearing two people conversing with each other. They performed equally well both times. But when half a conversation was played, performances dropped dramatically. Another study showed that people on public transport recalled more details of a one-sided conversation than a two-sided one, even if they'd been trying to ignore both.
The human brain likes things to be predictable, and it can't really relax and "tune out" something that doesn't make sense. You might notice yourself trying to fill in the other half of the phone conversations you overhear. It's the same mechanism that makes it so hard to walk away after you've seen the first 15 minutes of an episode of CSI or Law & Order: The brain naturally hates leaving questions unanswered. Suddenly, you're trying to solve a puzzle instead of concentrating on how little you give a shit about the exact drunken position he passed out in last night.
Just how the fuck did that horse make her spend a year at college?
Unfortunately, there's not much you can do about it, unless you plan to start investing in extremely small EMP devices.
You're on the jet bridge waiting for the lucky bastards already on the plane to stow their belongings in the overhead compartment. Suddenly, a fellow member of Boarding Group C pushes you from behind. You turn around to smile awkwardly so that the rest of the interminable wait isn't rife with awkwardness, only to be shoved on the ticklish side of your torso. You're considering withholding that awkward smile after all when you realize the guy with his hands on your breasts isn't the real culprit. The people in the back are all crushing in toward the plane as though it's a rave, and the plane is a giant ass sheathed in corduroy. Don't they see that there's literally 20 feet of empty space behind them?
There's a reason we usually fly on the Cracked private jet. And that reason is mescaline/absinthe shooters. But not getting shoulder-fucked by idiots is a nice bonus.
What The Hell Is Going On Here?
You're just the victim of something that seems to happen whenever a group of people waiting for something hasn't formed an orderly line. For some reason, the folks at the back just can't resist invading your personal space, as if an inch of forward movement will somehow make them reach their destination more quickly. We understand that people get impatient, but generally most of humanity manages to wait in line at the bank without banging up against the person in front of them like an angry giraffe. So why is it different in a thick crowd?
Anonymity breeds sociopathy. Otherwise known as Cracked's Greater Theory of 4Chan.
Believe it or not, this kind of thing is usually not caused by human malice or by a secret society of perverts who are really into rubbing against people's backs. Instead, it works like this: You're standing near the back of a crowd and there's a lot of free space around, so you move forward slightly, because hey, why not? Free space is cheap back here where there's lots of it.
Except that you have just started an Indiana Jones-style rolling boulder of suck. Those standing behind you assume that since more space is appearing ahead of them, the whole crowd is moving forward, so they follow suit. If something is blocking the people right at the front -- a turnstile, a slow barista, an escaped sewer alligator terrorizing the subway -- people are going to start involuntarily cramming into whoever's trapped at the front just to avoid being so uncomfortably close to the fat guy behind them. And because of the fuckton of people everywhere, there's no way for those at the back to know what they're doing.
Not that they'd avert their eyes from their iPhones to try.
It's this lack of visibility that's also responsible for the mega-version of crowd cramping: stampedes. When we hear about stampedes, we tend to think of greed, mass panic, angry sports fans or some sort of temporary group insanity. We call a stampede death a "trampling," as if crowds are like herds of wildebeest, willing to crush human bodies underfoot when a firecracker is set off near their hind quarters.
In reality, stampedes have been triggered by things as simple as reaching down to pick up a lost shoe.
Meanwhile, the oblivious people at the back are still pushing forward, and those caught in this tragic man-pile are physically unable to do anything but crush those in front of them. Which is too bad, because it takes the weight of only five people pushing like this to cause deadly asphyxiation. So if you ever find yourself in a situation like this, it doesn't matter how cheap the TV sets are at Best Buy today. Get the fuck out.
Always know the locations of your emergency exits. And always carry a flare gun for crowd dispersal.
It doesn't take much to get most of us enraged when we're driving a car. People cutting us off, people not using their blinkers, people using their blinkers too much, people driving annoyingly blue-colored cars. When someone cuts us off when we're on foot, we might feel slightly annoyed, but we don't usually have the same urge to yell, swear and honk a horn at them. Not unless there's some major problems in other parts in our life, or we're a clown.
Not all drivers are equally aggressive, though. Some of us just take a few deep, calming breaths when a guy drives all the way past the line of waiting cars in an exit lane, and then cuts in right at the front. Others actually get out of their cars and break his windshield with a crowbar. Why this extra rage?
"I HAVE IMPORTANT, QUESADILLA-RELATED BUSINESS TO ATTEND TO."
What The Hell Is Going On Here?
First, a question: What do you think is the best predictor of whether someone is prone to road rage and aggressive driving? Whether he's driving a beat-up pickup or a lavender Prius? The presence or absence of prison tattoos? The presence or absence of a crowbar holster on the back of the passenger seat? No. It's the number of bumper stickers on his car. Even one sticker or decal is enough to raise the likelihood of the driver having to be physically restrained by loved ones after somebody doesn't let him in to the lane in time.
Not pictured: The "coexist" bumper stickers on both cars.
How does this work? Well, consider the hypothetical person who gets into your personal space on the street. Unless he's a total dick, chances are he will make up for it in some way. If he doesn't actually say "sorry," he'll usually display some sort of unconscious, apologetic body language. Most of the time, this is all that's needed to defuse the bumping-into situation. Machines, on the other hand, are incapable of this kind of polite signal, which is probably why you're more likely to yell at your computer when it freezes up than you are to yell at your servant when he drops your caviar.
No best-selling author's day is complete without a big bowl of jeweled caviar.
When driving a car, we humans consider our vehicles a part of our territorial space. So when someone cuts us off, or behaves discourteously, we instinctively react as if someone had run into us on the street and then ignored us completely.
So what's with the rage-causing stickers? Scientists have theorized that the act of marking a car means that the driver has a greater sense of this territoriality -- in other words, he identifies the car more as an extension of himself. Which is why they feel the need to mark it with a sign of his personality. Researchers have found that it makes no difference whether a bumper sticker says "Visualize World Peace" or "Guns Don't Kill People, I Do." To sticker-users, any vehicle-based rudeness means you've basically done the road equivalent of cutting in front of them in line and then flipping them the bird two inches from their nose.
Add in an exhaust fart to the face if you really want to piss them off.