Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Folly of Texting

There have been a number of stories in the press lately on the follies of texting while doing almost anything else. One of the more recent involved a Boston trolley crash that injured 20 people. The 24-year-old trolley operator acknowledged he was texting his girlfriend at the time of the crash.

Now comes a story in today's New York Times. It reports that American teenagers sent and received an average if 2,272 text messages per month in the fourth quarter of 2008. This worries psychologists and physicians, who say obsessive texting is leading to anxiety, distraction in school and sleep deprivation. All of which is a grand way to make more errors.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Really, No Gift Is Too Small...

..At least not when it comes to currying favor among doctors.

A recent article in the Archives of Internal Medicine shows that even small gifts like a coffee mug or pen inscribed with a drug's name can influence the opinion of doctors.

The study shows that students from a medical school where such gifts are allowed had a more favorable attitude toward a cholesterol-lowering drug than did students from a school where such gifts were banned.

(The schools were the University of Pennsylvania, which bans most gifts, samples and meals from drug companies, and the University of Miami, which allows them. The drugs were Lipitor and Zocor.)

The study is important because many doctors (like many of us) believe our judgment can't be bought -- at least not so cheaply.

Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Asleep at the Wheel

Pilot fatigue now appears to have been a factor in the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407, which went down Feb. 12 in Clarence Center, NY, killing 49 people on the plane and one man in a house hit by the plane.

Investigators have determined that the plane’s pilot, Marvin Renslow, slept in the Newark Airport crew lounge – against the policy of the flight’s operator, Colgan Air.

The plane’s co-pilot, First Officer Rebecca Shaw, commuted through the night for Seattle, catching rides on connecting Fed Ex flights to get to Newark, where Flight 3407 originated.

The lack of sleep is a well-documented cause of human error. Even moderate sleep deprivation, for instance, can cause brain impairment equivalent to driving drunk. And with increasing fatigue, as with increasing intoxication, people demonstrate a greater willingness to take risks – which is probably not what you want when those people are flying an airplane or wielding a scalpel or doing any of 1,000 other jobs. Yet this is exactly what happens.

Between 2003 and 2007, for instance, there were at least half a dozen cases in which pilots in the U.S. fell asleep – mid-flight! In one case, the pilot and the co-pilot fell asleep while descending toward Dulles International Airport near Washington D.C. In another, Frontier Airlines acknowledged that two if its pilots fell asleep on a 2004 red-eye flight from Baltimore to Denver. Fortunately, one of the pilots woke up after “frantic calls” from a controller.

There are staggering numbers of sleep-deprived people out there (you may even be one of them). At last count, 42 million prescriptions for sleeping pills were filled in the U.S.; that’s about one for every seven Americans, a number that has increased 60% increase over the last five years.

People are so sedated that the federal government has begun to warn of a new peril: sleep-driving, which occurs when people drive while under the influence of sleeping pill. They also sleep-eat; people have reported ingesting buttered cigarettes or waking up gasping for breath with a mouth full of peanut butter, a particular sleep-eating favorite.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, May 11, 2009

Life Isn't One Thing After the Other...

It is, as I believe Gertrude Stein once said, the same damn thing over and over again.

This is true of mistakes as well. It’s not so much the new mistake that bothers us. What drives us crazy is that we make the same mistake over and over again.

Why? The answer has to do with feedback.

What’s feedback? Basically, it’s a signal. Feedback sends back to the user (that's us) information about what action has been done and what result has been accomplished.

Feedback is a well-known concept in the science of information and control theory; it’s why phones have dial tones and make those little beeps when you push the buttons – the feedback lets us know whether we’ve done something correctly.

But in real life, feedback isn’t always as clear as a dial tone. Often, we distort feedback because we don’t like the signal we get. Instead, we tell ourselves little white lies.

A good example involves failing to lose weight. Say the first of the year rolls around and you resolve, once again, to get in shape. So you join a gym and pay up for an annual membership. But (and research has shown this) you will probably end up going to the gym only about half as often as you expect you’ll go.

Result: at the end of the year you still won’t be in shape – and you will have overpaid for you gym membership. So you will have made two mistakes instead of one.


Maybe you can’t bear to admit to yourself the truth: that you really are the undisciplined, lazy, slob your third-ex-boyfriend-in-a-year said you were. Because if he was right about that, then maybe he was right about all those other things he said. And if he was right about all those things then that means even more years in therapy. And you just finished paying off the therapist’s bills – which is why you had the money to join the gym in the first place.

So what do you do? You alter the feedback. You tell yourself a little white lie: “I didn’t go to the gym because I had to finish those projects at work.” Or, “I didn’t go because I had to take care of the kids.”

In any event, you tell yourself something more palatable. But when New Year’s rolls around next year, you set yourself up for the same mistake -- because you haven’t been honest about the cause in the first place.