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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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 11: The Rhyme-as-Reason Effect
- When we speak or write, the phrases we use have both form and meaning. Although we usually think of form and meaning as distinct, we tend to assess as more meaningful and valid those phrases that are more beautifully formed. The rhyme-as-reason effect causes us to confuse the validity of a phrase with its aesthetics. Available here and by RSS on December 11.
- And on December 18: The Trap of Beautiful Language
- As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
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