A popular video floating around the Web is the "selective attention test" by Simons and Chabris. It shows a group of six basketball players, three wearing white, and three wearing black. Each group of three is passing a basketball among their group. Viewers are instructed to count the number of times the white team passes the ball. In the midst of the action, someone in a gorilla suit walks across the court. Because most viewers are focusing on the white team's basketball passing, they completely miss the gorilla. They just don't see it.
This failure to notice the obvious illustrates a phenomenon called inattentional blindness, which happens when we're so focused on one visual task that we literally don't see something else that's in plain view. It suggests the possibility that other phenomena can account for our failures to notice or take account of things that are obvious in retrospect. Here are the first two of six tips for reducing the chances of missing the obvious, emphasizing causes that apply to individuals.
- Inattentional meta-blindness
- We can What accounts for our failures to
notice or take account of things
that are obvious in retrospect?generalize inattentional blindness, which is a visual phenomenon, to the non-visual. Sometimes we become "thought blind" to events, concepts, or information that's obvious in retrospect. If we're intensely focused elsewhere, we might be unaware of the "gorilla" that just walked across the mental scene. In risk management, for example, we might plan for some risks, and miss others altogether, even when the ones we misssed are more likely. See "Ten Project Haiku:iv" for more.
- When we're engaged in observation, meta-blindness can arise from a cognitive bias known as the focusing effect, which is the tendency to place too much importance on one aspect of a situation, ignoring others that might be equally or more significant. This tendency also applies to abstract contemplation. For example, the risk of inattentional meta-blindness is high when we focus intensely on difficult subject matter, or when we're under pressure to complete complex tasks. In those circumstances, we often forget to take breaks, or we feel that we have no time for breaks. But that's just when breaks are most important. See "The Shower Effect: Sudden Insights," Point Lookout for January 25, 2006, for more.
- Not looking
- Inattentional meta-blindness is looking, but not seeing. Not looking is another matter. When we have a favored outcome, when we believe we understand a situation thoroughly, when we have preconceptions about how something came to be or how it will develop, we're less likely to look for alternative explanations or alternative predictions.
- The more certain we are that we understand what has happened, or what is happening, or what will happen, the more important it is to ask ourselves, "What if we're wrong?" Here's a quick way to do it: ask yourself, "If it turns out that I'm wrong about this, what would I have been most likely to have overlooked?"
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More articles on Project Management:
- Finger Puzzles and "Common Sense"
- Working on complex projects, we often face a choice between "just do it" and "wait, let's
think this through first." Choosing to just do it can seem to be the shortest path to the goal,
but it rarely is. It's an example of a Finger Puzzle.
- Teamwork Myths: Formation
- Much of the conventional wisdom about teams is in the form of over-generalized rules of thumb, or myths.
In this first part of our survey of teamwork myths, we examine two myths about forming teams.
- Down in the Weeds: I
- When someone says, "I think we're down in the weeds," a common meaning is that we're focusing
on inappropriate — and possibly irrelevant — details. How does this happen and what can
we do about it?
- How We Waste Time: II
- We're all pretty good at wasting time. We're also fairly certain we know when we're doing it. But we're
much better at it than we know. Here's Part II of a little catalog of time wasters, emphasizing those
that are outside — or mostly outside — our awareness.
- Yet More Obstacles to Finding the Reasons Why
- Part III of our catalog of obstacles encountered in retrospectives, when we try to uncover why we succeeded
— or failed.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 27: Brainstorming and Speedstorming: II
- Recent research into the effectiveness of brainstorming has raised some questions. Motivated to examine alternatives, I ran into speedstorming. Here's Part II of an exploration of the properties of speedstorming. Available here and by RSS on February 27.
- And on March 6: A Pain Scale for Meetings
- Most meetings could be shorter, less frequent, and more productive than they are. Part of the problem is that we don't realize how much we do to get in our own way. If we track the incidents of dysfunctional activity, we can use the data to spot trends and take corrective action. Available here and by RSS on March 6.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.