Commuting 101: Avoid Target Fixation


Man, I hope I don’t run into that…

Recently, I’ve had a series of close encounters with critters, storm debris, buckles in the pavement, other cyclists and pedestrians on the multi-purpose path. Something in a book I was reading seemed applicable:

“…your hands are hardwired to your eyes. Look ahead; see where you want to be next. Don’t look where you don’t want to go. It’s called ‘target fixation.’ Your eyes stray to a target you don’t want to hit. Your hands will automatically take you there if you’re not careful.”

Let’s say you’re riding along a trail and notice a fist-sized rock. If you focus on that rock and keep your eyes on it, intending to make sure you miss it, you’ll be drawn towards the very obstacle you’re trying to avoid. I’ve noticed this with other cyclists as well; as another commuter approached me the other day they eyed me nervously and drifted from the edge of the path towards the middle. That matches up pretty well with Wikipedia’s entry on Target Fixation.

“Target fixation is a process by which the brain is focused so intently on an observed object that awareness of other obstacles or hazards can diminish. Also, in an avoidance scenario, the observer can become so fixated on the target that they will end up colliding with the object.

This is a common issue for motorcyclists and mountain bikers. A motorcycle or bicycle will tend to go where the rider is looking; if the rider is overly focused on an obstacle (puddle of oil, tree, branch, patch of sand, small child, etc), the cycle can collide with that object simply because of the rider’s focus on it, even though the rider is trying to avoid it.”

The good news is you can use this to your advantage. If you’re riding in a debris strewn bike lane, focus on the clear path you want to take, not the glass, rocks and assorted building materials that otherwise choke the lane. Want nice straight lines when you’re mowing your lawn? As a kid I learned the secret: find a spot in the distance that is in line with where you want to go and walk towards it without looking down.

So, be aware. It’s common sense, people: watch where you’re going.

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0 thoughts on “Commuting 101: Avoid Target Fixation”

  1. Ringer says:

    I notice I do this more (fixate on what I want to avoid) when I’m tired. I almost nailed a crack in the road the other day on my way home. It’s one I’ve hit before and is surprisingly jarring–the kind of bump that makes it feel like you could snap your handlebars off. So, yeah. It’s less a matter of watching where you’re going as opposed to watching where you want to go. And getting enough sleep, I guess.

  2. JB says:

    This is interesting because haven’t we all run over that object that we are trying to avoid. What is the situation called when you do not want to go off the edge of the road into the gravel but no matter what, you can’t keep yourself from going? In the other sport that I like, golf, it is all about focusing on the target to hit the ball there….messes with my mind when I ride my bike to the golf course and then play

  3. crchair says:

    I learned this from my driver’s ed instructor in High School and it rings true for many applications. This also explains why some drivers who focus too much on the road just in front of their car tend to weave in their lane.

  4. Paul in Minneapolis says:

    I noticed this during my first thousand miles of (returning to) biking. Now I automatically look for where I want to go. As I am approaching pedestrians, first I scan for a clear path, then I say loud enough where I am going, such as “bicycle passing on your left” and focus on that clear path. I do the same in traffic, scan pavement, and predict where cars are going then signal or show that is where I’m going.

  5. d'Andre says:

    Ever seen the Frasier episode called “Fraternal Schwinns”?

  6. Ghost Rider says:

    So, you put up a quote from a book you were reading but you didn’t mention the title of the book? You’re a tease! Fess up, man — it sounds like it might be a good one.

  7. Warren T says:

    Weird, it was there when I was writing this morning… The book is ‘Spy’ by Ted Bell. A little mind candy.

  8. noj57 says:

    Try reading a couple of books called “A Twist of the Wrist” Volumes I and II by Keith Code. Yes, I do realize that the info applies to motorcyclists more (they are just misguided individuals who don’t realize you can have just as much fun when you provide the power instead of a motor! ;), however, there is good info about target fixation, how to take the proper lines through cornering, balancing your weight, etc. All of this info is the same regardless if you have a motor or not.

  9. Quinn says:

    I just recently had to replace a saddle, due to Target Fixation, No Bueno 🙁

    I fixated on a parked car, when I Also had to avoid the friend I was riding with, And the Mustang that was cutting the S-bend short.

  10. Cafiend says:

    Back-country skiers say, “watch the spaces, not the trees.”

  11. Reedyjo says:

    d’Andre, that’s EXACTLY what I thought of when I read the article – Frasier consistently making a beeline for the mailbox while riding a bike. Hilarious episode!

  12. ohio biker says:

    It is possible through training, to greatly reduce or
    even eliminate the effects of target fixation.
    If while riding in a safe area, you deliberately
    practice looking somewhere other than your intended
    route, (not for extended periods of course) then you
    may be better able to avoid target fixation.

    Naturally the more you practice this, the more
    effectively you may be able to avoid target fixation.

    To the extent that you want to not be subject to
    target fixation during some critical times, it may
    be worthwhile to put in the effort to practice
    avoiding target fixation effects.

    Not every one is the same. Your mileage may vary.

  13. ruggero says:

    Greetings from Italy and thanks for this nice site”
    I think that to avoid target fixation is s really good suggestion; what I would add is that
    I agree with who recommend to avoid target fixation but I don’t think that is always useful with running cars, especially when you’ve got to face a car coming on your right/ left, that doesn’t seem intentioned to stop. In this cases I observed that it could be useful a kind of “eyes fixation”, meaning to watch deeply in to eyes of mentioned driver, trying to communicate your intention and to understand his/ her intention to.
    This technique is really powerful and I know that is common in sports like karate or judo.

  14. Sizzlechest McGillicutty says:

    This is 100% a well-documented phenomenon. I find it to be particularly true when working through a jungle of sideview mirrors. I also find that when I look down and try to micro-manage (for lack of a better word) through smaller objects in the road, I tend to hit them more. When I just look beyond them and power to where I want to go, I’m much better off. How bizarre!

    I’ve also found that people who started riding their bikes earlier in life and spent more time on them during their youth (not me) are just generally better bike handlers….so keep your kids in the saddle!

  15. Mr_Andersen says:

    The question is: What is your target? The fixation is fine as long as the the target is your path. Filter what are hazards, and fix your eyes on the path. Ah, and when i’ve mastered this in every aspect of my life, I will let you know.

  16. looieloi says:

    WARNING — be careful when following garbage men. Sometimes they let the cans roll out into the street — right in your path.

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