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What Clown On a Unicycle? 284

R3d M3rcury writes "The New York Times has an article about walking and using a cellphone. 'The era of the mobile gadget is making mobility that much more perilous, particularly on crowded streets and in downtown areas where multiple multitaskers veer and swerve and walk to the beat of their own devices.' But the interesting part was an experiment run by Western Washington University this past fall. There was a student who knew how to ride a unicycle and a professor who had a clown suit. They dressed a student up as a clown and had him ride his unicycle around a popular campus square. Then they asked people, 'Did you see the Unicycling Clown?' 71% of the people walking in pairs said that they had. 51% of the people walking alone said that they had. But only 25% of the people talking on a cellphone said that they saw the unicycling clown. On the other hand, when asked 'Did you see anything unusual?' only about one person in three mentioned a unicycling clown. So maybe unicycling clowns aren't enough of a distraction at Western Washington University..."
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What Clown On a Unicycle?

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  • by Yvanhoe ( 564877 ) on Sunday January 17, 2010 @11:06AM (#30798394) Journal
    There is no question that one is less aware of its surroundings when using a cell phone. The real question is to see whether this lower perception is acually any danger for pedestrians. I have the feeling that when walking and using a cellphone, I am less aware of my distant environment but still keep a keen picture of everything that could hit me directly.
    • by Admiralbumblebee ( 996792 ) on Sunday January 17, 2010 @11:11AM (#30798426) Homepage
      In the city there are many things that are not in your immediate proximity that could be very quickly. Not maintaining a reasonable awareness of your surroundings except for that which is nearby is quite dangerous in the city. Not to mention the ease of being swindled while distracted. I find your comment particularly ironic given your signature, since your comment seems to imply that you expect those around you to keep a look out for you, but not vice versa.
      • Not really (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Rix ( 54095 ) on Sunday January 17, 2010 @11:18AM (#30798484)

        Pianos don't really fall from windows, and it's exceedingly rare for cars to leave the road.

        People pay attention to what they need to. Do you notice every homeless person?

        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          It maybe rare for cars to leave the road, but it's very common for pedestrians to enter the road, especially when distracted.
    • by sznupi ( 719324 ) on Sunday January 17, 2010 @11:23AM (#30798524) Homepage

      Brakes of my car would disagree with you (especially since those are memorable events, one of the very few when ABS engages)

      Perhaps starting to slam into those people (when it's another car; would be rather safe, it's usually a car with only a driver inside, cellphone by the ear, that is coming from the opposite direction and turning left just in front of me) would get a message through. And get me a new car...

      • by Yvanhoe ( 564877 )
        It is worth noting that one data that is easily computed by the visual cortex is the "time to impact" of an object. Something far coming quickly (like a car) or something close moving slowly but in the good direction (like an insect). I think that someone on a cell phone ignores easily the high tti objects but is well aware of the lower one.
      • It would be awesome if I could get a grant to body-check guys with cell phones. For the sake of research, and for the sum of human knowledge, I mean.
    • by klubar ( 591384 ) on Sunday January 17, 2010 @11:24AM (#30798530) Homepage

      What the study (or the reporting of it) failed to note is whether clowns, unicycling, or unicycling clowns are common on the campus. For example if everyone at the campus wears a clowns suit or unicycles then one more unicycling clown isn't noticible.

      Bad reporting. No donuts.

      • by JustOK ( 667959 )

        But if everyone was wearing a clown suit, then the subjects would probably have noticed at least one of them.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by biryokumaru ( 822262 ) *
        As I've mentioned elsewhere, I attended WWU for some time and can easily say that unicycling clowns are not on the wide end of bizarre for Bellingham, regardless of what Professor Hyman might think.
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by sdpuppy ( 898535 )
        Perhaps it is common for professors to unicycle on campus.

        Then the question is whether students are able to distinguish clowns from their professors.

        To do this correctly, you would require three line-ups:

        one with professors only

        one with clowns only

        one with a mix of clowns and professors.

        Then you would need some students who are asked the question whether there is anything unusual in the lineup.

    • As a bicyclist I strongly disagree. Sure, you may be looking out for cars when you step out into the road, but that little bit of lower awareness may be all it takes for you to completely miss the cyclist coming down the road and step out in front of them.

      Walking around a town can be tricky, between broken sidewalks, people walking dogs, and all sorts of other obstacles. Also... being on the other end of that conversation sucks.

    • by roman_mir ( 125474 ) on Sunday January 17, 2010 @11:41AM (#30798682) Homepage Journal

      28 y.o. Toronto woman was killed by a 5 tonne delivery truck []. She was on her phone and walked under the rear wheels of a truck, that was making a left turn. The driver could not have possibly seen her because of the truck length and the fact that he was making a left turn. She walked under the rear wheels herself because apparently she was unable to evaluate the situation around herself while on her cell phone.

      Darwin award, obviously, but it shows a case where a pedestrian was a hazard (this time to herself) because she was so distracted.

      • The truck was making the right turn, sorry [] and in this article they actually mention the cellphone. I just remembered this story from last year and thought it was quite appropriate.

        • This assumes we have no complaint with the design of the truck itself. Being overrun happens in cases where the squashed person is not at fault (and I note that the pedestrian in this accident was unable to present her side of the story; do we have an account from a disinterested party?) I had heard that safety skirts were required in Europe to prevent exactly this accident, when I googled for "europe trucks safety skirts", I found this:
          and he
          • by MooUK ( 905450 )

            Particularly if the truck is also expect to travel on, say, building sites, it will need a certain amount of clearance under any skirts to allow for rough ground. For a sizeable vehicle, that's probably more than enough gap to run someone over.

            The person shouldn't have walked into the truck. Can anyone give a valid argument against that statement?

            • Your statement is literally true, but the design of the truck contributed to the severity of the accident. One presumes that there are building sites in Europe, yet somehow they manage to use trucks there. Clearly, one should always be on the lookout for hazards, but that is no excuse for creating hazards willy-nilly without some blame to the hazard-creator.

              It is standard advice to cyclists in the US to never, ever ride (or stop) to the right of a truck when the truck has the option of making a right t
      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by SpeZek ( 970136 )
        I don't even understand how that accident was possible. Do people close their eyes while talking or something? She walked into a semi!
    • by biryokumaru ( 822262 ) * <> on Sunday January 17, 2010 @12:17PM (#30798912)
      I went to WWU. I can tell you, a unicycling clown is not that bizarre. You might as well ask a guy from LA if he saw the gang violence as he walked down the street. Or a New Yorker if he saw the potholes in the road.
    • by MRe_nl ( 306212 ) on Sunday January 17, 2010 @12:43PM (#30799102)

      The original classic test afaik; []

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by BattleApple ( 956701 )
        To anyone that hasn't seen this video before, count the number of times the basketballs are passed from one person to another.
    • I get tired of being forced to make way for self-absorbed clods attempting to walk down crowded sidewalks while shouting into their phones. They keep their heads down while having their ever-so-important conversations about who texted who last night. They do this partly to announce just how overwhelmingly great their social life is. Sometimes I deliberately block their path so as to force them to pay attention. Sometimes they walk straight into me, assuming I will clear a path for them. I expect to see one
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Bob_Sheep ( 988029 )
      Three words: Somebody Else's Problem
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward
      I work for a major university police department. This year we have had 3 people vs bus accidents. The problem - three people on phones/listening to headphones have walked into crosswalks and not looked both ways. The three seperate incidents people weren't hit by the buses - they walked into the side of buses already in the intersection. That's all the evidence I have...
    • I am less aware of my distant environment but still keep a keen picture of everything that could hit me directly.

      You mean a keen picture of all things you're aware of that might hit you and that's not good enough.

  • Wazu is known for being quite the party campus, so it surprises me not that students don't notice things like unicycling clowns, though it's highly unlikely that the cause is cellphones and not booze. What would have interested me is if they had the unicycling clown cycle around campus while talking on his cellphone and seeing how long it took for him to swerve into a parked car. And since it would be a clown, it'd be a lot more funny.
    • by sznupi ( 719324 ) on Sunday January 17, 2010 @11:27AM (#30798556) Homepage

      Did you really miss the huge differences between three categories of people, cellphone users during the experiment among them, that were mentioned in TFS?

      • by rvw ( 755107 )

        Did you really miss the huge differences between three categories of people, cellphone users during the experiment among them, that were mentioned in TFS?

        I don't know if this kind of distraction counts, but while typing this the Wild Norseman was talking to his mum on the intercom down from the basement.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Wazzu is Washington State University, which is on the Eastern border of the state (and yes, has been known to be quite the party school). This article references the University of Western Washington, which probably means Western Washington University.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by fotoguzzi ( 230256 )
      Wazu is known for being quite the party campus...

      Wazoo (or Wazzu, or WSU) is Washington State University, in Pullman, Washington, in the east of the state. Besides beer-drinking, it was also known for being a suspect in the notorious Wazoo/Wazzu Virus [] that plagued the world in the 1990s.

      Western Washington University is, surprisingly, to the west of the state. I know they were doing some fantastic work with rotary engines in ancient days, but I don't know what the clowns are doing now.
    • Were you talking on a cell phone when you read the summary? WWU is not WSU.

  • This study doesn't take into account that people aren't going to be searching the background, but instead look for threats in the foreground.
    • by sznupi ( 719324 ) on Sunday January 17, 2010 @11:29AM (#30798578) Homepage

      Who in his right mind would not interpret unicycling clown as extremely threatening?...

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by John Hasler ( 414242 )

      Right. They should have asked "Did you walk into a unicycling clown?"

    • It's often the threats in the background that matter especially when driving as cars move much faster than people walking.

      People who think they can use a cellphone and driving are just selfish. If ever I saw someone on a cellphone in an accident, assuming they're the only one hurt I wouldn't stop. I would feel the need to be equally selfish and not waste my time.
  • by Lemming Mark ( 849014 ) on Sunday January 17, 2010 @11:13AM (#30798450) Homepage

    Reminded me of this observational skills test (by Transport For London to remind drivers to look out for the many cyclists on city streets): []

    • So in a dark underpass, they cover a guy completely in a dark suit, and in a video the size of a postage stamp, it's supposed to be a surprise you don't see him?

      That's camouflage, not "awareness".

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        Not to mention that looking out for idiot pedestrians, cyclists, motorbikes and other obstacles while driving is de rigeur, while watching for a moonwalking bloke in a black suit is NOT de rigeur when you're effectively asked specifically to ignore the team in black ("How many passes does the team in white make?"). Now if the "did you see" item was a chick on a bicycle, or indeed a damn clown on a unicycle, it might have been relevant.

        • So the point is you have to be aware of your assumptions, and be on the lookout for exceptions. Just like how the beginning driver has to learn that just because a car is parked doesn't mean it is a non-hazard (someone might open the street-side door). The point isn't supposed to be "look how dumb you are" the point is "look how easy it is to miss things".
      • Yes, it's not a good implementation of that test. The first time I saw this experiment performed (around 2004/5?) they used a much clearer background and the bear was in the frame for a lot longer. Still most people didn't notice it. This time I was looking for the bear and only saw it just before it went off the screen.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by dr2chase ( 653338 )
        Didn't see the bear, did you? :-)
      • This is different how when most cyclists blend in and that's why they're supposed to have lights an some wear high-vis leg bands, both of which don't do much when they're beside you and you're not paying attention. Most people aren't professional clowns and therefore won't be cycling to work in brightly coloured clothes.
      • Oh by the way, the video could have been watched in full-screen and from the other replies I would guess no one noticed the bear is in the preview shot that is completely still and you're able to stare at for as long as you like.
    • Without cheating (apart from knowing that something would happen, I counted 10 passes out of 13 and I noticed the bear. I didn't notice that it was moon walking though

    • by lawpoop ( 604919 )
      You know what? I think this test is bunk. Everyone sees the gorilla or bear or white rabbit, the first time around. Then, they smugly think "I'm so much smarter and aware than all those other morons in the human race." Meanwhile nobody actually fails this test.

      Is there any actual study that shows numbers for how many people actually miss the suprise, really?

      It's like when the reporter Mike Royko signed books for his colleagues at a party. He wrote in everyone's book "You were my favorite reporter -- don'
      • Nobody I know, including myself, saw it first time round but perhaps we just are from the moron segment of the human race ;-)

        The point of the video is to be viral (which it did reasonably well at) so as to spread a useful message. One of the better uses of advertising money I've seen out of public sector, as long as it reached enough people.

  • My Lawn! (Score:2, Insightful)

    Unicycling clown? Unicycling clown? Back in my day, we had to walk uphill to college for miles while dodging unicycling elephants who came downhill. (It may sound absurd, but it makes sense--after all, can you imagine a unicycling elephant going uphill?)

    More seriously, it seems to me that the important part of the test isn't necessarily whether you saw the unicycling elephant (or clown), but whether you detected the unicycling clown or elephant as an object that must be avoided. When one is walking in a

    • There's (anecdotal) evidence that people will "not see" a six-foot person in an orange rabbit suit piloting a reflectorized pedicab [] and also not avoid it. Oddly enough, even though one might interpret "I didn't see her" as an admission of driving while blind, the only charge that stuck was hit-and-run.

      (I have read elsewhere that the rabbit smelled alcohol on the driver's breath, but note that there was no charge of DUI, so legally, not intoxicated.)
  • by koan ( 80826 )

    They aren't going to see the truck coming either.

  • by SuperBanana ( 662181 ) on Sunday January 17, 2010 @11:28AM (#30798570)

    On the other hand, when asked 'Did you see anything unusual?' only about one person in three mentioned a unicycling clown. So maybe unicycling clowns aren't enough of a distraction at the University of Western Washington..."

    What would have been more interesting would have been including data on how many semesters people had been on campus. I strongly suspect that freshmen would be more likely to notice the guy on the unicycle, and seniors to ignore him.

    College is where every flamboyant moron "expresses" himself/herself, so you get used to seeing unusual things. A unicycle is pretty normal for a clown- and a clown isn't that unusual for a college campus.

  • Mistake in TFS (Score:4, Informative)

    by RobVB ( 1566105 ) on Sunday January 17, 2010 @11:30AM (#30798588)


    “I was trying to think about what kind of distraction we could put out there, and I talked to this student who had a unicycle,” said Ira E. Hyman Jr., a professor in the university’s psychology department. “He said, ‘What’s more, I own a clown suit.’ You don’t have a student who unicycles in a clown suit every day, so you have to take advantage of these things.”

    The student owned the clown suit.

  • "On the other hand, when asked 'Did you see anything unusual?' only about one person in three mentioned a unicycling clown. So maybe unicycling clowns aren't enough of a distraction at the University of Western Washington..."

    That's not even close to "weird enough to lay down a pointer to something in the days events".
  • Made me remember a joke in an old Lucky Luke comic. A circus goes to town. Then a drunk goes to the bar and say something like "You wont believe this Outside saw an elephant, and this one is gray!"

    If in that campus everyday something weird happens you end not giving them attention. The normal could end being the new weird.
  • by houghi ( 78078 ) on Sunday January 17, 2010 @11:52AM (#30798762)

    Funny that this about cellphones and not about the difference between people walking in pairs and people walking alone. That is much more interesting then the fact that people are bad in doing two things at the same time.
    Why is it more interesting? Because it is counter intuitive. You would think that talking to somebody would be distracting (just like talking on the phone would be) yet it isn't.

    If walking alone is the median to start from and placed at 100%, talking on the phone is 50% (as might be expected, as it is a distraction) and walking in pairs is 150% (wich is odd)
    As the walking in pairs is the odd one out, that is what the students and professors should be focusing on.

    What could be looked at then is gender specific coupling. Next what happens if there are three or more people? Does it go down? Also perhaps the increase is just that when together somebody is more likely to say: "Look at that clown on a unicycle." Then you can start looking if they are aware that the other said so, or if they thought it was their own observation.

    And then the question. What if the same question was asked and there was NO clown on a unicycle? What would the results be then? Perhaps people together are more likely to say yes, because they would be afraid to admit they didn't and people on the phone are more prone to be honest as they are aware they are distracted and therefore even more alert. What about the single ones then? Well, they still might be not willing to admit not paying attention, but less so then with a friend.

    So drop the phone part and concentrate on the other side of the results.

    • by TheRaven64 ( 641858 ) on Sunday January 17, 2010 @12:21PM (#30798942) Journal
      When you're walking with someone, there's a tendency to look at them. To compensate for this, you need to look where you're going more carefully so that you still have an accurate mental picture of your surroundings when you look at the person. The people who didn't do this all walked into trees and died before they could breed. Walking in a pair or a group probably triggers some of the instincts developed by our pack-hunting ancestors. If you don't keep track of your pack and your prey, you either become something else's prey, or you don't get your share of the kill and go hungry.
    • by ceoyoyo ( 59147 ) on Sunday January 17, 2010 @01:02PM (#30799244)

      "If walking alone is the median to start from and placed at 100%, talking on the phone is 50% (as might be expected, as it is a distraction) and walking in pairs is 150% (wich is odd)
      As the walking in pairs is the odd one out, that is what the students and professors should be focusing on."

      Not really. People walking alone without a cell phone had a probability of seeing the clown of Pa = 0.51. Assume that if one person out of a pair sees a clown he or she will mention it to the other half of the pair. Thus, you'd expect the joint probability of seeing the clown to be the probability that either one of them sees it: Pp = Pa + Pa - Pa^2 = 0.51 + 0.51 - 0.51^2 = 0.76. They actually observed 0.71 which, assuming it is not due to experimental error, could mean that walking in pairs can distract you a little and/or that there is a small probability that the person in the pair who sees the clown won't point it out to the other.

      • by MooUK ( 905450 )

        This being a university, I suspect the chance of not mentioning it is fairly high. It's not the weirdest thing to happen.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by hrvatska ( 790627 )
      You seem to be assuming that everyone in the pairs who noticed the event mentioned it to their companion. Maybe not everyone in the pair of people who noticed the unicycling clown mentioned it to their walking companion. If the same proportion of people in pairs initially notice the unicycler, 51%, and only about half of those people mentioned it to their walking companion, then the 71% figure doesn't seem unusual.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by MooUK ( 905450 )

      As you suggested: I suspect that if the question was "did you see the unicycling clown?", people together will be less willing to admit they didn't see it. People alone have less incentive to try and impress someone. And people on their phones just weren't paying attention.

  • by Kenoli ( 934612 )
    That's what clowns do.
    Maybe if it had been a normal person unicycling, or a clown simply walking, someone would have noticed.
  • oh, you mean THAT unicycling clown. Ya, I saw him.

  • personally, i would have used a gorilla suit

  • Texting while doing stuff just needs to stop in general. A few friends and I went out last night to go ice skating. I saw two people texting while skating, and the rink was full enough that I suspect there were more I didn't see. As a college student, it's getting fucking ridiculous every time that I have to try to navigate around some clueless person on the sidewalk who's paying more attention to texting than the world around them.
  • by RJFerret ( 1279530 ) on Sunday January 17, 2010 @12:03PM (#30798824) Homepage

    At an amusement park, a female friend returned from the restroom relating how a man entered while talking on his cellphone, looked her dead in the eye then turned to enter a stall, talking all the while.

    Other women heard him talking and asked "is that a guy in here?" She responded, "Yeah, he doesn't realize he's in the 'ladies', don't worry about it."

    He finished the call, finished in the stall, came out and his eyes widened when he saw all the women.

    • by RobVB ( 1566105 )
      "Oh, I'm sorry, I was, errr, on the phone. Yes, the phone..."
    • Re: (Score:2, Troll)

      by cerberusss ( 660701 )

      Other women heard him talking and asked "is that a guy in here?" She responded, "Yeah, he doesn't realize he's in the 'ladies'

      I have never understood the obsession of separating sexes in the bathroom. What possible reason could there be? Except maybe a few swinging dicks if the ladies did their best to look over the separators between urinals.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        It does have the advantage of letting the guys efficiently relieve themselves, rather than waiting in line for packs of women gabbing and adjusting their makeup. Using a crapper sitting next to an eligible woman would also be awkward. My college had co-ed bathrooms that worked fine, but they were low-traffic and only had one toilet. Really I'd rather have 2 bathrooms with 3 people of any gender in them at a time than one with 6, and dividing the bathrooms by gender is an efficient way of evenly dividing the
      • I have never understood the obsession of separating sexes in the bathroom. What possible reason could there be? Except maybe a few swinging dicks if the ladies did their best to look over the separators between urinals.

        In Amsterdam they don't even bother with the bathroom (well, for men at least): street urinals []

      • There's nothing in the bible that says that men and women should share a bathroom and everyone knows life was better and there were no terrorists when men and women had separate beds.
  • . . . it would have been a giant mushroom on a mini-bike.

    And nobody would have reported seeing anything unusual that day.

  • Gorillas (Score:4, Informative)

    by symes ( 835608 ) on Sunday January 17, 2010 @01:02PM (#30799238) Journal
    This is a rerun of the classic Gorillas in our Midst experiment - look here [] for an abstract and more info from here [] and here []
  • Hell, when I'm thinking about a programming problem I've been known to miss things stranger than that. No cellphone required.

    I don't drive without music playing, because the music provides enough stimulation that it keeps me from drifting off into hyperfocus.

  • by Colin Smith ( 2679 ) on Sunday January 17, 2010 @01:08PM (#30799280)

    A similar study was done several years ago using guys dressed up in gorilla suits, throwing beachballs to oneanother. Only about 50% of people noticed at all.

    Which is why motorcyclists have to see for other people.


  • People do a lot of stupid crap. I'm sure if there had been a clown on a unicycle on the streets where I live, I wouldn't have noticed. There's car alarms going off, people honking, yelling at each other, handing out leaflets, asking for change, street performers, street painters, street vendors, gawkers, kids running around, gaudy hipsters and fashionistas doing their thing, and public service workers on the job. Most of the time I'm in my own head simply because all of that stuff already seems annoying

  • I suspect this study is fundamentally flawed, or at least the conclusion is. Here's why: it's been my observation that while doing some things (for example driving is a big case, but walking in a crowded place is also very much the same), my brain goes into a stream-of-thought mode. Basically, my brain sees and processes things around me in real time, as I need to deal with them. It pretty instantly makes decisions, I take action, then almost *immediately* forget about them. The brain throws that memory awa

  • If I had seen someone unicycling on my campus, I wouldn't even blink. If I saw someone unicycling in a clown suit on my campus, I might think it was his day off - or he was on his way to a second job as a clown for a kids party. Or I might think that someone was doing an experiment. The only thing out of those three situations that would give me pause would be the thought of "what does unicycling in a clown outfit have to do with real science? is this some weird way to prove the Casimir effect?" (we didn

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