Stop traffic with your smile!

Post by Dr. Jemima Stockton

Stop. Look. Listen…Say cheese! Recent research has shown that a smile can slow down and even stop traffic.

Since the 1970s, basic skills for staying alive as a pedestrian have been drilled into generations of British school children. Hot on the heels of Tufty Fluffytail – a pioneering red squirrel born in 1953 whose road safety club boasted a membership of over two million in the early seventies – the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents produced the Green Cross Code. The code is a set of very simple and very sensible instructions on how to cross streets safely. Number 3: use your eyes and ears to look and listen for traffic…Number 4: wait for the traffic to pass…

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Ken Langstaff © RoSPA circa 1960

But why wait for traffic when it can wait for you? Indeed, the new study suggests the code needs updating. Number 3 should include using your mouth to smile at oncoming motorists, making them stop and thereby eliminating the need for Number 4 (and 5 and 6).

The research was conducted by a team of social psychologists led by Nicolas Guéguen at the University of Southern Brittany in France. In Europe a quarter of all road traffic-related pedestrian fatalities occur at crossings; in urban areas of France the proportion rises to half. Previous research has shown that people who smile are regarded as more attractive and more intelligent, and generally perceived more favourably with regard to a range of attributes than non-smilers. Also, several studies suggest that being smiled at – the target of a smile – induces a better mood leading to acts of kindness, such as leaving a big tip for a waitress. Stopping at a pedestrian crossing cannot really be considered an act of kindness – even in France where 60% of motorists do not – since it is the law. Nevertheless, and in the face of shocking pedestrian fatality statistics, Guéguen and his team were interested in the influence of smiling on driver behaviour. They were spurred on by their earlier experiments, showing that more drivers stopped for a pedestrian at a crossing when the pedestrian stared at the oncoming motorist than when they did not look at them. Non-verbal communication between pedestrian and motorist evidently had a good effect on driver behaviour. If a blank stare could elicit better road “manners”, harnessing the mood-lifting power of smile could be a game-changer.

To test the effect of smiling on driver behaviour, Guéguen et al conducted three experiments, employing undergraduate students as research assistants to unleash their smiles on unwitting motorists. All tests were conducted during daylight hours on sunny days in urban areas in the west coast region of France. Experiment Number One was on zebra crossings. The research assistant waited at a zebra crossing and delivered either a smile or a neutral facial expression to the oncoming motorist. He (or she) recorded the driver’s sex and whether or not the motorist stopped and let him (or her) cross the road. Overall, drivers were significantly more likely to allow a crossing when smiled at by the research assistant than when faced with a blank stare: almost two thirds stopped for a smile but only half stopped for a stare. The sex of the research assistant and the sex of the driver also affected the likelihood the driver would stop (female drivers were more likely to stop; female pedestrians were more likely to be stopped for; and male drivers were more likely to stop for female than male pedestrians) but didn’t impact on the effect of a smile on the driver’s stopping behaviour.

In a nutshell, Experiment Number One suggests you’ll probably get across the road sooner at a zebra crossing by smiling at an oncoming motorist than by staring. But what if you want to cross elsewhere? What if, like most pedestrians, you want the most direct route to your destination, which does not include that zebra up the road? Any driver stopping to let you cross at an undesignated point would be doing so out of compassion rather than legal obligation. Roll on Experiment Number Two: does smiling induce kind behaviour? This was like Number One but conducted at points on the road that were not designated crossings. The research assistant stood on the kerb and put one foot into the road, signalling intent to cross. Unsurprisingly, fewer drivers stopped and let the research assistants cross the road than at the marked crossings in the first experiment. But, again, smiling increased the research assistants’ chances of getting across.

While Experiment Number Two provided evidence that smiling elicited “kind” behaviour, it didn’t explain how. Were the motorists stopping for smilers because they found them more attractive (and therefore more worthy of reaching the other side of the road)? Or did the kindness stem from a smile-induced good mood? The researchers designed their final experiment, Number Three, to find out. A female research assistant was deployed to wait at a zebra crossing on a road with a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour (20mph). She stood there until a car stopped and then crossed, glancing at the motorist with either a smile or a neutral expression. The subsequent speed of the motorist, over the next 200 or so metres along the road, was calculated by another researcher. All 86 drivers who stopped broke the speed limit (men and women, with equal abandon) on the stretch of road immediately after the crossing. However, motorists who had been treated to a smile by the research assistant did so significantly – albeit slightly – less blatantly than those she blanked: average speeds following a smile and a neutral expression were 42.5 and 46.1 kilometres per hour (26.6mph and 28.8mph), respectively. This finding supports the idea that a smile induces a good mood because kindness is seen, in the form of a lower speed, after “smile exposure”.

So, in summary, you don’t have to be a flashing green man to calm traffic; you just need to flaunt your pearly whites.

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