The Thinking of the Shrew

In his famous book, King Solomon’s Ring, the great naturalist Konrad Lorenz describes the time he spent observing the behaviour of a family of shrews. Like you do. He observed that the shrews always took the same path around their territory, and after the first few times of cautiously sniffing their way along, they’d follow the path at a flat run, looking neither to left nor to right. At which point he wondered what would happen if there was a sudden change in their environment. So he removed a rock that the shrews had been in the habit of leaping over on their route. And…

“…the shrews would jump right up into the air in the place where the stone should have been; they came down with a jarring bump, were obviously disconcerted and started whiskering cautiously right and left, just as they behaved in an unknown environment. And then they did a most interesting thing: they went back the way they had come, carefully feeling their way until they had again got their bearings. Then, facing around again, they tried a second time with a rush and jumped and crashed down exactly as they had done a few seconds before. Only then did they seem to realise that the first fall had not been their own fault but was due to a change in the wonted pathway, and now they proceeded to explore the alteration, cautiously sniffing and bewhiskering the place where the stone ought to have been. This method of going back to the start and trying again always reminds me of a small boy who, on reciting a poem, gets stuck and begins again at an earlier place.”

So here, we have familiarity breeding, not contempt, but blindness — the shrews were running on assumption rather than observation. So let’s call it Familiarity Blindness. And we’re no different: I remember seeing a statistic that something like 60% of all road accident occur within three miles of the person’s home. And I’m sure that that’s in large part down to people running off their internal mental model of how that place ‘ought’ to be, rather than on observation and expectation of what ‘could’ be. A friend of mine was once knocked off his bike by an old boy reversing his car out of his drive. The guy’s excuse? — “But I reverse out of my drive at that time every day…”.

I was out coaching last weekend — I use a number of routes, but most start with a ride from Newland’s Corner and head down through the villages of Albury and Chilworth, which means a couple of miles of tedious 30mph speed limits, at the end of which there’s a sharp left-hand bend, coinciding with a return to the national speed limit and which provides a welcome opportunity to welly it out of the bend, before turning right and continuing in the national until Shalford. Or at least, it did: I was surprised to notice that the chap I was coaching only took his speed up to 40-45mph on that piece of road. Strangely, I thought, as he’s normally pretty good at getting going once out of town limits. So I questioned him about it. He looked surprised, “B-b-but it’s a 40mph limit along there…”. “Nah”, quoth I, “It’s a national.”. He persisted though, at which point I started thinking shrew thoughts. So, like the shrews, I went back and checked: sure enough, the place has fallen victim to Surrey County Council’s utterly ill-considered and counter-productive plan to completely devalue the notion of a speed limit by reducing every road in Surrey to a 40mph limit (a proper rant on the topic is forthcoming) — at some point in the last few weeks they’ve changed the existing signs, but nothing else. So I’d blithely carried on by assumption rather than observation — it took somebody who wasn’t so familiar with the road to point it out to me. Oops.

So the lesson-de-jour, bishop, is not so much to avoiding riding with anyone who has a long snout and whiskers, but to remember to focus just as hard on roads you’re intimately familiar with as you do on strange territory, but here you’re not working against ignorance of the terrain, but against your own assumptions. Which is a lot harder.

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