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Originally published January 3, 2014 at 4:28 PM | Page modified January 3, 2014 at 5:15 PM

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Editorial notebook: Lace up your shoes and get out of the car to avoid snap judgments

The “thin slices” of perception grow thinner through the windshield of a car.

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Want some more of that rich social intereaction, with people carrying a bottle under... MORE
Thin Slices is an reasonable discription of the thinking behind most of Martin's pieces... MORE
Thin slices get even thinner when you are a pedestrian or a motorist with your face... MORE


WITH the failures of grand New Year’s resolutions trailing me like toilet paper on my shoe, I resolved to go small this year. I’ll do all my neighborhood shopping on foot or bike. That’s it.

I got a jump on my mini-resolution Tuesday night when, on my way to the grocery store a half-mile away, I came across a guy scowling beneath a hoodie on a corner.

In a car, that’s all I might have seen. I would’ve missed a point of connection — the beer growler under his arm. We shared raves about favorites at Bottleworks, the Wallingford beer store where he was headed, and a New Year’s fist bump.

That interaction was on my mind as I read a compelling study out of the University of Surrey that tries to untangle the social costs of the automobile.

It asked participants to rate their responses based on short videos — images shot from perspectives on foot, on bike, on a bus seat or from a car — of an “ambiguous” social setting: kids in a park play-fighting over a sheet of paper as a girl, sitting on a nearby park bench, texted on her phone.

People who saw the driver-view video, which had the quickest view and the least clear sound, concluded, in a flash, that the kids were a threat. They felt annoyed. Walkers, who heard the most, found the kids well-educated, or funny.

A related experiment, conducted with videos of poorer and richer neighborhoods, reached a similar conclusion: car drivers, in a flash, decided the “bad becomes worse and good becomes better.”

Those snap judgments — described as “thin slices” in Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book “Blink” — serve to confirm preconceptions and biases. Absent more information, we go to our default settings. Take in more, and, as the study suggests, you find your neighborhood has a rosier glow.

I’ve experienced the city on foot, on bike and by car for more than two decades and am consistently surprised by the difference between Seattle experienced via car and out of the car. The laminated safety glass of an automobile windshield becomes an information cocoon.

This month, the Seattle City Council will begin deliberating the Bike Master Plan, the multi-decade blueprint that knits the city together via bike highways and neighborhood byways. It is sprawling, and probably too expensive to fully do.

But it offers enticement for people to experience more than very thin, drive-by slices. Get out of the car, and you may get your New Year’s fist bump.

Jonathan Martin

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, Lynne K. Varner, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).

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