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Do Racy Billboards Create Better Drivers?

New research finds surprising evidence to that effect.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: jaroslavd/Flickr)

Most of us think of billboards as both an annoyance and a potential distraction. If you are checking out a 14-foot-high advertisement for the latest addition to the McDonald’s menu, you are taking your eyes off the road, delaying your awareness of whatever hazard is just ahead.

It sounds dangerous, and in some cases it is. But recentresearch suggests certain billboards might actually focus drivers’ attention on the road.

Say, those advertising your local strip club.

“Attention and arousal are linked,” a research team led by Michelle Chan of the University of Alberta writes in the journal Acta Psychologica. “In a highly arousing situation, attention is selectively narrowed to the road ahead, resulting in better lane control.”

That’s what Chan and her colleagues discovered — to their surprise — in a study featuring 30 university students. Using a simulator (including steering wheel, gas and brake pedals, and a projected display), participants embarked on five simulated road trips of approximately five minutes each. They navigated down a virtual winding rural road, and dealt with stop signs, traffic lights, and pedestrians.

“In a highly arousing situation, attention is selectively narrowed to the road ahead, resulting in better lane control.”

On four of the five trips, there were billboards on the side of the road. Their emotional content was manipulated so that, on one journey, most of the words displayed were negative, while on another, they were positive, and on a third, they were emotionally neutral.

Most importantly, on one trip, 16 of the 20 words were sexual in nature, including “boner,” “dildo,” and “orgasm.”

To make sure they were paying attention to the billboards, the participants were instructed to immediately press a button on the steering wheel when they saw a word representing a household item (such as “desk,” “mirror,” or “table”). The researchers noted how quickly and accurately they performed this task, as well as how fast they drove, and how well they controlled the car.

Confirming the results of one of Chan’s earlier studies, she and her colleagues found “positive words were associated with faster driving speeds.” Apparently terms that make us feel good (which in this case included “beauty,” “brave,” and “admired”) prompt us to step on the gas.

More startling was their discovery that sexual terms did not distract the drivers. On the contrary, “taboo words were associated with better lane control, better memory recall, and better target response accuracy, compared to the other word types,” they report.

“It is possible that drivers may have allocated more attention to the road ahead when in a highly arousing situation,” the researchers write. This phenomenon is known as “cognitive tunneling,” a mental state in which “observers focus their attention on one part of the environment” — in this case, the highway.

So rather than leading drivers to drift off into an erotic fantasy, the sex-related words apparently make them “more vigilant and attentive” to their driving.

This is a small study, and its results will need to be replicated before definitive conclusions are drawn. But it provides further evidence that the way billboards affect our driving depends in part on the specific emotions they evoke.

Apparently nothing focuses the mind like a sign that screams “scrotum.”