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Think the Answer’s Clear? Look Again

In his 20 years as a researcher, first at Stanford University, now at the University of Toronto, Dr. Redelmeier, 50, has applied scientific rigor to topics that in lesser hands might have been dismissed as quirky and iconoclastic. In doing so, his work has shattered myths and revealed some deep truths about the predictors of longevity, the organization of health care and the workings of the medical mind.

Dr. Redelmeier was the first to study cellphones and automobile crashes. A paper he published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 1997 concluded that talking on a cellphone while driving was as dangerous as driving while intoxicated.

He found that about 25 more people die in crashes on presidential Election Days in the United States than the norm, which he attributes to increased traffic, rushed drivers and unfamiliar routes.

He also discovered a 41 percent relative increase in fatalities on Super Bowl Sunday, which he attributed to a combination of fatigue, distraction and alcohol.

…he studied the psychology around changing lanes in traffic. In an article published in Nature in 1999, Dr. Redelmeier and Professor Tibshirani found that while cars in the other lane sometimes appear to be moving faster, they are not.

“Every driver on average thinks he’s in the wrong lane,” Dr. Redelmeier said. “You think more cars are passing you when you’re actually passing them just as quickly. Still, you make a lane change where the benefits are illusory and not real.” Meanwhile, changing lanes increases the chances of collision about threefold.

Dr. Redelmeier examined University of Toronto medical school admission interview reports from 2004 to 2009. After correlating the interview scores with weather archives, he determined that candidates who interviewed on foul-weather days received ratings lower than candidates who visited on sunny days. In many cases, the difference was significant enough to influence acceptance.

In 1990, he and Professor Tversky published a paper in The New England Journal of Medicine showing that when physicians make a medical decision for a single hypothetical patient, they favor more expensive treatments than when making a decision for a group of hypothetical patients with similar symptoms. And in 1996 the two scientists found that increased arthritis pain had nothing to do with the weather. They attributed the misperception to the human tendency to look for patterns even where none may exist.

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(H/T Michael Lewis)

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