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Gods or Demons?
Which voices should you pay attention to?

By: Cash Anthony


When a rider is new at the sport of motorcycling, advice seems to come from all directions. It comes in overwhelming quantity and detail about subjects the newbie never heard of, concerning problems he can’t even imagine yet.

He or she may have a friend or family member who once owned a motorcycle and who decides to be the authority, or the rider may join a club to find other riders whose advice is reliable. But is it?

And like other information in today’s complex world, it’s easy to reach a point where you want to put your hands over your ears and shout, “Stop! Information overload!”

From the point of view of someone who has had to learn to expand her point of view to include far more technical and engineering-related knowledge than she ever dreamed, this problem is one of the best reasons to take a structured training course right off the bat. You will get information in tiny units and overall, only a limited amount (in the big picture), but it will come in fairly manageable chunks.

In structured training programs, you have people who have watched many, many riders learn to operate a motorcycle under their supervision, and they’ve been trained to coach beginners through the basics. If you don’t understand something at that basic level, you can indeed call for a time-out and ask for clarification. And you have a live human being there who should be able to answer your question and give you at least a brief explanation, enough to get you through the immediate situation or to help you figure out to improve that skill because they have watched you personally, knowing what to look for.

After that basic instruction, most riders are on their own. This is when a rider’s judgment and purpose for taking up motorcycling comes into play: after basic training, who do you listen to? Is it possible to find a good mentor? Must you learn everything else by yourself?

If you want to learn more about your particular bike and others of its marque, you’ll probably seek out a brand-related club and go to a few meetings. Some of these meetings may not be your cup of tea, offering nothing about what you want to learn and a social setting that is not friendly or comfortable for you.

But some clubs are full of sharp people with a great deal of experience on the very bike you ride, and you would do well to listen to their stories if they have had problems in common. (“With that model, your bike will turn over but it won’t start. And you may get a big boom when the ignition boot blows off. Expect it several times a month – just put it back on.”) And they can show you how, or tell you who to call.

If you bought your bike to commute, you'll pre-drive the route for your daily travel a time or two in your car, looking with ‘new eyes’ at signs, signals, road conditions and traffic threats, before your first ride to work on your motorcycle. Then you’ll talk to other riders at your office about commuting: where to park, what to do with your bike in bad weather, protective gear you can wear over a suit.

If you just want to ride around town with a few buddies on the weekend, your route may be undetermined, but you know at the end of the trip, you plan to hang with your friends and kick tires. You’ll definitely get advice from them, but can you believe it? How much of it?

Maybe you ought to take a good look at those buddies with the same ‘new eyes’ and listen to them with ‘new ears’ before you ride off with them. There’s a lot of foolishness out there. A guy you admire, one who looks like a Motorcycle God today, may lose his luster when you take a closer, more rational look.

Are your riding buddies relatives or old friends? Are you prone to try to one-up them, to impress them, to compete under any condition or situation, whenever one of them throws a dare? Do you think they’re experts because they’ve been riding a few years, or because they ride a bigger bike than yours? Do you tend to listen to the guy who has the biggest mouth, because everyone else does?

“It’s easier just to go along with him -- nobody wants to get in his face,” or “He’s not as good as he thinks, but nobody wants to hurt his feelings. Just ride your own ride. But keep your head up around him on the road!” I’ve heard those very comments about members of groups I used to ride with, and I’ve observed some riders with nasty tempers, even old brain injuries, and on lots of drugs. People notice, but people don’t always act as if they did. Will you have the presence of mind to say “No thanks, I’ll ride alone” when you find yourself on the road with one of these people who claims to know it all? In other words, will you “question authority”?

Wear a helmet? “Nobody else in the group does, it’s proven to be more dangerous than riding without one.” Wear long sleeves, even leathers, on a hot day? “My brother said he got a heat stroke riding in leather. Man, take it off!” Er, okay. A group of peers can sound like authorities if you forget to be skeptical.

In “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions,” Dan Ariely, an MIT professor, discusses why people do irrational things (like take a dare or listen to stupid advice or ignore warning signs in other people). Human beings make decisions against their own self-interest every day, and it’s very hard to convince them to do otherwise once it becomes a habit of mind. Faced with certain options, they will consistently make the wrong choice, according to Ariely. They will have a rationale, but it’s a devilish one that makes no sense when you really look at it hard, unless you’re willing to accept a certain logic to illogic.

“Our irrational behaviors are neither random nor senseless – they are systematic,” he says. “We all make the same types of mistakes over and over.” We’re so attached to some of them that we can’t even recognize that they are errors, despite the results.

For example, researchers asked people to estimate what proportion of African nations were members of the U.N. This sounds like a pretty neutral test question, right?

They discovered that they could influence the answer those subjects gave just by spinning a “Wheel of Fortune” in front of them to generate a random number. When it was a big number, the estimates were big. Small number, small estimate. How rational a creature is this we’re talking about?

More to the point of acting against self-interest, two Ph.D. students at Duke put together a research project using the school’s passion for basketball. Some fans had won tickets to a Blue Devils game through a lottery. Other fans who had failed to win them were asked the maximum they would pay to buy them from the winners, and the winners were asked the minimum they would accept to give theirs up.

From a rational perspective, both groups should have thought about the opportunity the same way: a few would strike deals with each other. But this wasn’t the case.

The people who had won the tickets were willing to sell them only if they could get, on average, twenty-four hundred dollars. The ones who wanted to buy them were willing to offer only one hundred seventy-five dollars. Not a single ticket holder would sell for a price that a non-ticket holder would pay. One said he wouldn’t sell at any price.

These examples may seem far afield from motorcycle safety, but they show that human beings are programmed to take shortcuts in their thinking at times, and sometimes those shortcuts result in decisions that simply don’t make sense in terms of protecting themselves. The results may be unfortunate because shortcuts don’t work every time.

When you’re a rider, this desire to avoid making an effort can include giving other people authority to influence your behavior -- and change your life. It can mean surrendering your common sense – not listening to your own ‘inner voice’ – or failing to challenge your inner voice when it’s talking nonsense. It can mean developing sloppy habits or making assumptions, even though you’ve been warned not to do that.

We’ve heard from a few riders who read a tip here and then got the opposite advice from a buddy. And sometimes what we’ve heard was, “Boy, did I find out which one of you was right!” after the fact. This may fall in the category of experimenting with two hypotheses, but unless you’re in a controlled environment, those experiments are best taken in tiny, baby steps when you’re involved in a hazardous sport. (If you’re on a closed track, take your best shot, if that’s how you want to teach yourself.)

It seems to me that before you decide to try some stunt that your latest Motorcycle God is doing – or claims to have done -- you might give a thought to the notion that you could have an inner Demon urging you to do something you already know isn’t very smart. If in doubt, STOP! Then bring it to a forum of riders who have demonstrated good judgment and a safety consciousness, like the one you’re trying to acquire.

In the marketplace of ideas and information, it’s finally up to you to decide what to believe. Still, you don’t have to learn everything you need to know by trial-and-error, especially when an error on the road can cost so much. Question authority. Try to gain an understanding of the facts for yourself, and use the collective wisdom of other riders. A forum is a good place to start. If it’s stupid, you’ll probably find out soon enough here.

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