Let's Take A Closer Look

Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986.

Test your ability to focus.

As you watch this one-minute video of people passing a ball back and forth, count the number of times the people in white pass the ball.

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The video was created by psychologists Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris.

They developed it to demonstrate what happens when we focus on a specific task – a phenomenon known as inattentional blindness. When people are looking for something in particular, they are likely to be blind to important and obvious things. Some refer to it as selective attention bias.

After watching the video, study subjects were asked if they had noticed anything unusual.

Half reported seeing nothing out of the ordinary. Go back and watch it again, this time not counting passes, but observing the entire scene.

Although obvious, it was beside the point.

When we look for something in particular, we don’t notice the fully-visible but unexpected. People miss the gorilla because it has nothing to do with white shirts and passing balls. The human brain subconsciously filters out visual images that are irrelevant to the task we are pursuing, even though the images are right in front of us.

Researchers presented radiologists with a CT scan of a pair of lungs and asked them to click on anything strange.

The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, showed they all found the ten abnormalities in the lungs. It also showed that three out of four of them did not notice the image of a gorilla the researchers had inserted in the scan, even though they scrolled past it an average of four times each.

If you’re betting the gorilla image was tiny and hard to see, you lose, because the gorilla image was 48 times larger than the average nodule that the radiologists were looking for.

Eye-tracking software showed the radiologists who did not report seeing the gorilla had in fact looked directly at it.

The radiologists missed the gorillas not because they could not see them, but because of the way their brains had framed what they were doing. They were looking for cancer nodules, not gorillas. Framing is an important step in problem-solving because even slight changes in how we look at things can lead to vastly different processes and solutions. “What we become focused on becomes the center of our world, and it shapes what we can and cannot see,” said Jeremy Wolfe, director of the Visual Attention Laboratory at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Trafton Drew, the lead researcher, said “attention can act like a set of blinders, making it possible for stimuli to pass undetected right before our eyes.”

What does this have to do with research?

Study sponsors usually have desired outcomes and pet theories they want confirmed. My colleagues and I have observed on many occasions that when they watch focus groups, most sponsors pay attention only to the things they are looking for. Studies show that when sponsors and researchers observe the same discussions, sponsors see only the evidence that supports what they already believe. Because they are trained to watch and listen to everything, researchers see the bigger picture, which almost always includes evidence pro and con. 

Some car-motorcycle crashes are caused by inattentional bias. 

Many oncoming motorcyclists are injured in accidents when drivers pull out directly in front of them. After the wreck, those who caused the accident said they never saw the motorcycle. Most actually did see it, but because they were looking for cars and trucks, they ignored the cyclists, pulled out right in front of them, and caused the accident.

Inattentional blindness is a cousin to change blindness.

This occurs when we fail to notice the difference between a previous state and the current state. Manipulating this phenomenon is a part of the toupée seller’s toolbox. Bald men who have made the decision to wear a wig are advised to first grow a mustache or beard and keep it long enough for people around them to get used to it. Then they are instructed to shave it off and appear bare-faced the first day they wear their new wig. The idea is that people will notice your beard is gone and not think about how you have miraculously sprouted a full head of hair. To no one’s surprise, the success of this tactic is related to the quality of the hairpiece and the flamboyance of the facial hair.

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