Field of Science

Behavioral Conditioning: Unlearning the Learned

A typical street scene in Zurich, nothing touristy at all, but there are a couple of things to notice. Of course there are the tram tracks running down the middle of the street, and they have lattice bricks around them so some grass grows where mostly you expect concrete or ashphalt. These are a nice example of green construction. Why not do your driveway?

But the insidiously deadly part of this scene is the yellow striped pedestrian crossing in the lower left. Set foot in one of these zones, pause in front of one, even glance at one while walking along the sidewalk, and all the traffic stops for you! Yes, pedestrians have the right of way, a common concept in the USA, but one seldom seen in practice.

Here's the problem. The natives never even look, they stride into the street in full confidence of their right of way. And now I'm beginning to do it. A life time of conditioning has been changed by just a few weeks in Zurich, and this could get me killed when I get back to the USA. When I was young and learning to cross streets, my Father pulled me back to safety once, and said in reference to pedestrian right-of-way, "Do you want to be right, or alive?" OK, let me think. Well, that isn't much of a choice, and that says it all in the USA. Our car culture even affects how we view the nearly universal law that pedestrians have the right of way. Pedestrians have the right of way, unless a car is present.

Oh, watch out for the bicycles. Even in Zurich the pedestrian law doesn't apply to them.

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