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Lack of Focus, Being on Autopilot and Tragedy

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  • Lack of Focus, Being on Autopilot and Tragedy

    Hello - This is not a cheery be warned. We had a terrible tragedy happen in our neighborhood this past week and I'm wondering if some of you who think a lot about the importance of focus have some insight that might help me understand it better.

    A mother with a 4 month old baby forget to take her child to day care and left the baby in the car at her work parking lot (this is Phoenix - 140 inside the car). She didn't remember the baby until her husband called her around noon. The baby was still alive when she went out to the car, but died later that night. Here is the story.

    What an absolute nightmare....what a horrible way to die, what a horrible thing to have to live with for the rest of your life. I feel so very, very badly for that baby, that family and that mother. I'm glad I'm not the county prosecutor who has to decide how to treat the case.

    According to the interviews that police have done so far, these are responsible parents. I would guess that there was some sleep deprivation and maybe some depression going on. I would also guess that the main reason that this happened is that she had a case of "monkey mind" - a million one things on her mind.

    When I went on the internet to find more about this story, I saw that this has happened many, many times....mainly by dads and grandparents - the ones who don't normally take the kids in....they are on autopilot once they get in the car. One dad was a department chair at a university and described as a very committed father.

    This raises a questions in my mind...could these tragedies been prevented? What causes otherwise responsible people to go on such autopilot that they have lapses like this?

    Your thoughts?

  • #2
    This is so sad.
    The same thing happened in our community last summer to a young professional and I can't describe how terrible it made me feel for him, his family, and of course the child. Your posting brought back some of the emotions that event caused in this grandpa's mind. The story was that he was so devasated that he became suicidal and I believe I understood how one could come to that under the circumstances. There were also some very insensitive remarks in the news about the situation and I just hope he & his family didn't hear or read some of it.


    • #3
      Although feeling slightly uncomfortable reducing a very real and tragic situation into a mere example of the affects of a lack of focus, I believe what happened here is what some people call a "Loss-of-activation error". This is where the act of putting the child into the car was intended to set in motion a series of events that would finish with the child ending up at day-care. Having then moved onto other things, the original activation thought decayed, and thus, along with it, the related goal. The 'auto-pilot' then kicked in, and the normal routine took over, to the exclusion of the out-of-normal routine.

      In his book "The Design of Everyday Things", Donald A. Norman covers a lot of these human slips, categorising them into six categories. An interesting read for any UI designers, etc. the book deals with how simple objects can be designed badly in such a way that they make these types of slips all too common.

      David calls this lack of space in your mental RAM, and at the start of Part 2 of GTD, mentions a trick he uses called 'Putting It In Front Of The Door'; a place where you mentally trip over a reminder that will bring the original activation, and the relevant goal, back to mind.

      In effect, you need to create a pebble that will automatically be thrown into the water-like mind.

      In this instance, what the parent could have done is to place a reminder that the child was onboard that had to be 'worked around' in the normal, childless flow of events. Perhaps attaching a child's dummy or teething ring to the car key fob, so that it would be noticed when the car was exited, and the presence of the child re-triggered. It needed something, however silly, that would interupt the normal flow of events with the fact that the child was still onboard.

      All of this theory, however, does little to reduce the tragedy of this situation, and my thoughts go out to this family.


      • #4
        Thank you for your replies.

        SpectGTD - I have that same concern...that the mother might become suicidal. I actually think though that this issue needs more media attention as opposed to less.

        Creed - I understand your concern about not reducing it to a mere lack of focus issue!!!....I hadn't thought about the design issue, but you make an important point. In this case, the car seat was behind the drivers seat rather than the passenger side, so she wouldn't have reminded about the baby while driving. Maybe cars need to be designed to have an alarm sound if there is extra weight in the back seat after the driver has gotten out the door has been shut.

        And cars are designed to be comfortable in fact that I think we tend to forget that we are moving a large chunk of mental down the road at high speeds and that the lives of others are in our hands. We are in our own little oasis in our cars. Add sleep deprivation to the situation and problems can happen.

        Sometimes we push ourselves way too hard. We have laws against drunk driving...perhaps we should have laws against driving with too little sleep. Or under too much stress. So much of what we do everyday regularly is dangerous, but becuase we do it so often without incident, we get complacent - driving, cooking a meal on the stove, chopping vegetables, mowing the lawn, taking a shower.

        Another thing that a person could do is put their briefcase in the back seat with the baby to force themselves to go back would cause that that little ripple you mention....but people aren't going to do that because no one thinks they could make that kind of mistake.

        At any rate, in the time I took to make this post, I could have written a letter to the powers-that-be suggesting a public awareness campaign about the dangers of hot cars (if people get reminded about this enough, that alarm in their brain should go off more often), changes in car design, etc. So a new project for me (NA - figure out who the power-that-be are).