Commuting 101: Avoid Target Fixation


Man, I hope I don’t run into that…

Recently, I’ve had a series of close encounters with critters, storm debris, buckles in the pavement, other cyclists and pedestrians on the multi-purpose path. Something in a book I was reading seemed applicable:

“…your hands are hardwired to your eyes. Look ahead; see where you want to be next. Don’t look where you don’t want to go. It’s called ‘target fixation.’ Your eyes stray to a target you don’t want to hit. Your hands will automatically take you there if you’re not careful.”

Let’s say you’re riding along a trail and notice a fist-sized rock. If you focus on that rock and keep your eyes on it, intending to make sure you miss it, you’ll be drawn towards the very obstacle you’re trying to avoid. I’ve noticed this with other cyclists as well; as another commuter approached me the other day they eyed me nervously and drifted from the edge of the path towards the middle. That matches up pretty well with Wikipedia’s entry on Target Fixation.

“Target fixation is a process by which the brain is focused so intently on an observed object that awareness of other obstacles or hazards can diminish. Also, in an avoidance scenario, the observer can become so fixated on the target that they will end up colliding with the object.

This is a common issue for motorcyclists and mountain bikers. A motorcycle or bicycle will tend to go where the rider is looking; if the rider is overly focused on an obstacle (puddle of oil, tree, branch, patch of sand, small child, etc), the cycle can collide with that object simply because of the rider’s focus on it, even though the rider is trying to avoid it.”

The good news is you can use this to your advantage. If you’re riding in a debris strewn bike lane, focus on the clear path you want to take, not the glass, rocks and assorted building materials that otherwise choke the lane. Want nice straight lines when you’re mowing your lawn? As a kid I learned the secret: find a spot in the distance that is in line with where you want to go and walk towards it without looking down.

So, be aware. It’s common sense, people: watch where you’re going.

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