Mental Mishaps

Errors in perceiving, remembering, and thinking.

The Dangers of Going on Autopilot

A study reveals just how much we miss when we're not paying attention.

How is it possible to drive home and have no memory of the trip? I’m sure you’ve done this. I certainly have. Sometimes I pull into the driveway and realize I have no awareness of large parts of my drive home. I can do this while walking, too. I walk across campus and seem unaware of the people and objects I’m passing. Apparently I can both walk and drive on autopilot.

But can we really go on autopilot? There are two ways of explaining the experience of driving home and having no awareness of your trip: One is that we were aware as we drove or walked past obstacles, but simply forgot those objects quickly as we continued onward. The other is that you really were on autopilot. You were driving without awareness, while zoned out, and failing to notice the world around you or the obstacles in front of you.

I’ve become convinced that we really do go on autopilot when we drive and walk. We can avoid obstacles but fail to notice what the obstacles were or even that there were obstacles. We can move to avoid something hanging right in front of our faces while walking but fail to notice that it was actually money hanging on a tree.

Yes, people will really fail to see money right in front of their eyes—and we have proof

I’ve just published a research project on being on autopilot with my former students Ben Sarb and Breanne Wise-Swanson (Failure to See Money on a Tree). We placed obstacles on some of our campus walking paths and observed people move past those objects. For example, we placed a signboard on a path (announcing that a psychology research project was happening). The signboard was placed such that people had to move to avoid it. The good news is that no one walked into the sign, not even those on a cell phone. When asked a few moments later if they had passed any obstacles, some people were unaware that they had avoided a signboard. People using their cell phones were particularly unaware. This looks like being on autopilot—people avoiding an object but having no awareness of it. Their minds were someplace else while they moved through the environment, without running into things. They were autopilot zombies stumbling through the world without awareness.

Of course, they may have simply forgotten the avoided object as quickly as they walked past it. So we did a fun follow-up study. We placed dollar bills on a tree branch and then bent the branch so it extended over a narrow pathway right at head height. Pedestrians had to move, or they'd get smacked in the face. The vast majority of people successfully avoided the money tree. But did they notice the money? Most did not. Very few people examined the money or took the dollar bills.

Your parents probably told you that money doesn’t grow on trees. But even if it did, most of us would walk past it without awareness. By the way, people using their cell phones almost never noticed the money. so if you're walking while staring at your phone, you may be passing free money or other opportunities without realizing what you're missing.

I wish I could claim the idea of hanging money on a tree was something my students or I thought up. But we were inspired by a clever YouTube video created by Amy Krouse Rosenthal. She hung 100 single dollar bills on a tree to watch how people would respond. Was there general excitement, or a flurry of activity as people discovered the money tree, the thing they always wished was true? No. Most people walked right by a tree with 100 dollar bills fluttering in the breeze. (By the way, it's a cool video).

Where were their minds while they were on autopilot? Cell phone users were focused on their calls or texts and so they devoted less attention to the world around them. Others may have simply been lost in their thoughts. I can easily get lost in my thoughts; being absent-minded is an occupational hazard of being a college professor. But being on autopilot is likely to happen during any activity that you can perform automatically. By definition, automatic activities are those that require little in the way of conscious guidance.

But one really important question concerns just how good your autopilot is. Clearly my autopilot can help me walk across campus while thinking about something other than the walk. Your autopilot sometimes gets you home in your car while your thoughts are someplace else. But are you safe in those situations? Is you autopilot a good driver? Not really. We and others have found that people on cell phones are slower to respond to a variety of signals in the environment – in our study, they moved later to avoid the signboard, for example. In driving simulators, when people's minds wander, their driving changes. When driving or walking, it's important to be aware of what the objects around you are. Cars, trucks, bikes, and pedestrians all move differently and you need to respond differently to avoid them. Your autopilot may not be smart enough to respond well. In addition, much of navigating involves planning—but your autopilot doesn’t plan. That 's the job of conscious awareness. This is probably why you forget to stop at the store on the way home: Consciousness is in charge of planning and your autopilot just follows the road and makes last-second adjustments to avoid obstacles.

In general, I’m not sure we’re safe when we rely on our autopilots. This is one of the hazards of using a cell phone while driving or walking, which pretty much guarantees that you will have to rely on your autopilot. It might get you home, but fail to stop at the store. Your autopilot will avoid objects generally, but may fail to predict how particular obstacles will behave and thus put you at risk of an accident. Your autopilot will move you around an obstacle, but won’t notice if the obstacle is interesting. And it won’t recognize dollar bills right in front of you, so you’ll fail to see money growing on a tree.

Ira E. Hyman, Jr., Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at Western Washington University.

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