Study finds being in a car can impact distance judgements

Few would argue against the role of cars as an indispensable tool in everyday modern life. Still, this characterization is not often considered in experimental investigations. Previous studies have shown that hand tools impact human perceptions of close areas that can be reached by the tool.

A 2016 article in the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review expands on the concept by examining how cars, as tools, can alter our judgements of far distances rather than close areas, since they enable us to reach these places where hand tools would not.

Forty-five subjects were included in this study, 28 of which were female. They were asked to judge a variety of distances (4 to 20 meters) while sitting either in a chair or inside a Ford Escort. Participants in a driver group were allowed to drive the vehicle around the entire course twice before making their judgements, while a complimentary pedestrian group remained stationary. A control pedestrian condition was also included that mimicked the view from within a car without actually using a vehicle, to ensure that any effect would not be a result of simple occlusion.

A comparison of the results showed that people in cars underestimated distances to a significantly greater degree than pedestrians in either of the other conditions. It was also noted that the underestimations became larger as distance increased. Subjects who were allowed to drive first made larger underestimations than those who only sat in the car, but in this case there was no significant difference between the amount of misjudgment at each distance. There was no apparent difference in estimates between pedestrian groups (chair vs car-mimicking view).

Based on the findings of this study, cars share a characteristic of other tools by changing the way we perceive our surrounding environments. It is possible that the effect is supported by an extension of the internal body-space schema to include distances that are considered to be reachable by using the car as a tool.

This interpretation would be in agreement with a known effect of hand tools on proprioception (the “sensation” of space immediately adjacent to the body), though the addition of several meters to our sense of body ownership may be an excessive proposition and requires further examination. Familiarity with the vehicle may also play a part in modulating the effect, as subjects who were allowed to drive first seemed to be more accurate in far distance estimations.