Imagining Reality

October 1, 2016 / Jongjin Park

In 2009, Toyota was forced to recall over 10 million vehicles and pay over $1 billion due to claims that their cars were uncontrollably accelerating. But it all started with this 911 call from a man driving a Lexus:

The call is extremely harrowing. Mark Saylor, 45. We hear him not being able to stop his car with his family inside it. He struggles to hit the brakes as hard as he can, but the car won’t stop. Eventually, the car jumps off the cliff and crashes. The media went crazy, and thus Toyota was blamed for the faulty manufacturing of their vehicles. ABC News tried to recreate the sudden acceleration by testing it:

And it was supposedly proven that the pedal, when pushed all the way to the ground, would get stuck because of the carpet underneath.

But none of this made any sense.

Firstly, Saylor probably wasn’t pushing the pedal all the way to the ground. Secondly, even if the car was accelerating at its highest speed, the brakes should have been able to stop it according to a study by Car And Driver, which states, “With the Camry’s throttle pinned while going 70 mph, the brakes easily overcame all 268 horsepower straining against them and stopped the car in 190 feet.”

This was elevated to the point NASA was involved. And even they “found no evidence that a malfunction in electronics caused large unintended accelerations.” The NHTSA said that they “[don’t] have reason to believe that pedal misapplication is a cause of the relatively few, prolonged, high speed, UA incidents that present the greatest safety risk.” So then, what caused the Saylor to crash?

It turns out, it’s a simple psychological phenomenon called, “learned helplessness.” It’s a “mental state in which an organism forced to bear aversive stimuli, or stimuli that are painful or otherwise unpleasant, becomes unable or unwilling to avoid subsequent encounters with those stimuli, even if they are “escapable,” presumably because it has learned that it cannot control the situation.” according to Britannica. Because Saylor was in panic, he was stepping on the pedals as hard as he could, thinking he was stepping on the brakes. There are plenty of car accidents that were claimed to be due to sudden acceleration per year, and those cars aren’t always Toyota, nor were they nonexistent prior to 2009. The media only latched itself onto his story because Saylor was the first one to leave an audio recording of his last words and their struggle to live, something we, as humans, cannot help but be sympathetic towards. But truth be told, Saylor’s crash was not a special case.

An Aug. 26, 2016 New York Times article, Shooting Scares Show a Nation Quick to Fear the Worst, by Richard Perez-Pena, Jack Healy, and Jennifer Medina, writes of Donna Melanson, a yoga instructor, feared for her life in an airport because of a supposed shooting. She said, “I couldn’t think of why people would be running unless there was a true emergency.” She wasn’t alone on this. There was a loud noise that sounded like gunfire in the LAX Airport that led many to think that a shooting was occurring.

Everybody thought that lives were going to be taken that night. But it was nothing. It was a loud noise mistaken for gunfire that led everyone to think it was a “true emergency.” And it definitely could have been, but this does further exemplify how easily we latch onto simple, probable narratives.

Roxane Cohen Silver, a professor of psychology and social behavior of the University of California said, “There’s a rapid dissemination of information on social media that’s not being filtered by anybody… This provides the unfortunate opportunity for rumors to be transmitted very quickly, without any ability to evaluate the veracity.”

Adam Conover, comedian for College Humor, made a video in which he exposes 13 common myths. After listing all of the misconceptions, he states,

So here's a question: “If none of these things are true, then why do we all believe them?” Simple. Because they all tell good stories.

And he’s absolutely right.

Remember the ABC News test that I talked about earlier that “proved” there was a problem with Toyota vehicles’ carpets? Well, that entire recreation was faked. This is how much we love good stories. Portraying a car company as an evil, greedy corporation that was finally exposed, is comforting and satisfying. But it’s not the truth. All it is, is a good story.

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