A recent Dateline NBC program explored the concepts of selective attention and inattentional blindness. Inattentional blindness occurs when our attention is so focused on one thing that we often fail to process other information that is right in front of us.
(If you’ve never heard of an experiment involving selective attention, you may want to stop here and view this video before reading further. It will allow you to test your own selective attention skills.)
In the Dateline program, the show’s staff carried out several experiments illustrating selective attention. At least one was based on the Gorilla Experiment, a study conducted in 1999 by cognitive psychologists Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris. In this experiment, volunteers were asked to watch a video (the same as the one above) that showed six people, three in black and three in white, passing a basketball back and forth. The study volunteers watching the video were asked to count the number of passes made by the players in white. Meanwhile, a person in a gorilla costume walked by the group of players. Though it seems as though a gorilla would be hard to miss, about half the volunteers were so focused on counting passes that they never saw the gorilla at all.
If you’ve heard about this experiment and know what it’s about, you will probably have no trouble spotting the gorilla while watching the video. Once you know what to look for, it’s unlikely you’ll miss it. Instead, watch the Monkey Business Illusion video below. I recently watched it myself for the first time and was astounded. While I counted passes and watched for the gorilla, I failed to notice other changes.
There are many practical ways we can apply an understanding of inattentional blindness. Think of cell phone usage and texting while driving. Though many of us think we can handle dividing our attention between driving and another activity, research like the Gorilla Experiment tells us otherwise. We can’t always trust our senses, and when our attention is divided, we often miss important details in our environment.
If you’ve watched the Invisible Gorilla and Monkey Business videos, please share your thoughts in the comments. Were you surprised by what you didn’t notice?
Simons and Chabris wrote a recently published book based on their findings. It’s entitled The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us. For more information on the book and experiment, visit TheInvisibleGorilla.com.
If you find this topic intriguing, you might want to watch the entire Dateline program, which features several different experiments illustrating how much we miss in our environment: Did You See That?! (Air date: Friday, July 16th, 2010)