Tina Fey, a squirrel, and somebody in a Spiderman costume enter a bar. But, you’re on your phone, so you don’t notice any of them.
This limitation of the human mind is known as inattentional blindness, which can be caused by all sorts of minor tasks, events, and objects.
Does the example above seem a bit far-fetched? Actually, it isn’t.
Research testing the limits of intentional blindness shows that even a minor distraction could cause you to miss details in your environment that are every bit as unexpected as the three unlikely bar patrons above. For example,
in one study, participants were asked to count the number of passes during a basketball game. Then, while completing this basic task, a woman with an umbrella would walk right across the middle of the game so that the researchers
could see whether the distracted participants would notice. Guess what: Many participants failed this test (Neisser, 1976, 1979; Neisser & Becklen, 1975)! And even more incredibly, researchers then tried this out with a
person in a gorilla suit, only to achieve the similar findings (Simons & Chabris, 1999)!
Dr. Ira Hyman from Western Washington University is an expert in inattentional blindness, among other areas of psychology such as the creation of false childhood memories and collaborative remembering. He too has conducted similarly
amusing studies on inattentional blindness. Notably, one of these investigated whether students walking across campus would notice a unicycling clown (Hyman, Boss, Wise, McKenzie, & Caggiano, 2010).
Amazingly, the students using their phones often did not see the clown until after it was pointed out to them! Chuckling at the memory of this, Dr. Hyman exclaims, “I had a student who actually rode a unicycle and owned
a clown suit. And so, when the universe hands you a unicycling clown, you should always take advantage of that!”
Inattentional Blindness in the Courtroom
All humor aside, inattentional blindness can have a terrible cost, as many distracted drivers have learned first-hand. In addition, inattentional blindness can occur in courtroom situations. When asked what can be done to prevent
this, Dr. Hyman says, “I’ve had some conversations with colleagues about this, and I don’t actually know the real answer yet. But, I think this is an empirical question, and an important one.
It feels to me—and this is one of the things that we’re starting to do in our studies—that you need to ask early in your interview with a potential witness the questions that have to do with their attention.”
As an example, the questions that he encourages law enforcement to ask are: “What were you doing while you were in the situation?” and “When did you become aware of the crime or accident?” Then, once these questions have been answered,
all future questions should only involve the moment that the witness became aware of the crime or accident, and nothing before that moment.
He says, “If we just ask every witness the same set of questions about what happened before and what was the start of a situation like, then we are putting them in a situation where they don’t have actual memory information because
they weren’t aware at that moment. Nonetheless, witnesses will often give an answer to the questions about what ‘might’ have happened ahead of time. And when they’re doing that, they’re giving erroneous information based on
sort of schematic reconstruction of what’s reasonable in the situation about how they think or believe that it must have been.”
Even worse, he continues, “Then, this erroneous information becomes a part of their memory. So, I think my hope is that some witness error may be forestalled by asking attention questions early in an interview and then being much
more careful about what additional questions we have.”
Want to Hear More From Dr. Hyman?
Listen to an extended version of this interview. "Did You Notice the Unicycling Clown" is available on the PsychEverywhere podcast at www.psichi.org/PodcastSeason2.
Wait, Money Does Grow on Trees?
Despite the applications of inattentional blindness in the criminal justice system, Dr. Hyman doesn’t really consider himself to be a “crime” person. Instead, he actually sees himself as a cognitive psychologist interested in naturalistic
or ecologically valid aspects of psychology, whose work occasionally intersects and has ramifications for memory in courtroom situations.
He first became interested in inattentional blindness when he was doctoral student. At that time, his dissertation advisor was Dr. Ulric Neisser, who actually invented the methodology for studying inattentional blindness. “Ulric
created this situation where you could have overlapping visual events. He did it with triple exposure film back in the 1970s with people passing basketballs. You’ve probably seen versions of this. If you track and count the
number of passes by one team, you fail to see someone else go directly across the film.”
Dr. Neisser was no longer doing that work when Dr. Hyman was a student, but the two of them spoke about it, and so it has been in Dr. Hyman’s background ever since. He says, “I got interested in doing my own research on inattentional
blindness because I became quite concerned about cell phone use while people were driving and walking and whether they would get so focused on the cell phone conversation that it would lead to visual failures, failing to notice
things that were directly in front of them.”
Other work by Dr. Hyman has included hanging actual dollar bills on a tree in a pathway. In this case, distracted passerby actually moved their heads to not get smacked in the face, but they still didn’t notice the money in the
trees (Hyman, Sarb, & Wise-Swanson, 2014).
He says, “Your parents probably told you that money doesn’t grow on trees. And our finding is that, even if it did, you wouldn’t notice it!”
You Fail to Notice More Than You Think
According to Dr. Hyman, “We think we are aware of things that are happening around us, and we expect to notice unusual things when they occur. That expectation is built on the fact that we have occasionally noticed unusual things
when they happened. But, the trick here is that, for all of the unusual things that we don’t notice, we are unaware of the fact that we’re unaware.”
“We have this illusion that we are more in touch with the world than we actually are. We think we see things. We think that we’re aware of what’s around us, but we fail to see things all the time. Dan Simons and Chris Chabris refer
to this sometimes as the illusion of awareness. So, when it’s pointed out to someone that they’ve missed something, such as a unicycling clown, the response is almost always sort of a nervous chuckle. They’ll go, ‘Heh, heh,
no, I didn’t notice that.’ ”
Realizing that we’ve become a victim of inattentional blindness can be especially disconcerting if we were driving or navigating and failed to notice something relevant to avoid an accident. It is also disconcerting for potential
witnesses of accidents or crimes.
Further, Dr. Hyman says, “We not only expect ourselves to see something, but we expect others to see something too. So, if you were there when something happened, then you must have seen it. You should be able to give some sort
of description of what happened and what a person looked like.” And yet, this often isn’t the case.
So, Is It Possible to Practice Being More Aware?
Dr. Hyman gives a brief but dramatic pause, and then he laughs aloud. “No!”
More seriously, he explains, “I might be wrong on this, right? I mean, I think if you are engaged in a divided attention task, and you know both parts of the task, then you can do both sides of it to an extent, but there’s always
a cost. Attention is a limited resource, and we can’t track everything in the world around us. When we’re dividing our attention between two things, we do each of those things less well than if we were only doing one thing.
So, I think there is just a fundamental limit here on cognitive capacity. Nonetheless, at every moment, we feel like we’re aware of the world around us, even though we’re probably missing lots of stuff.”
Despite the rapid changes in our use of technology in daily life, Dr. Hyman believes that this basic cognitive limitation has always existed. He says, “I really do think that we’re studying something basic about the human cognitive
system. At least, I hope it’s something basic about the human cognitive system.”
He adds, “I think what technology has done is trained us to be constantly distracted and to be expecting our phone to buzz or to be uncomfortable without checking our phone regularly. We are now constantly in this divided state,
which means that having our attention become focused on whatever’s happening on our phone to the exclusion of the other stuff around us may be rather likely at this point. But, it has always been the case that we fail to become
aware of things once we get focused on something in a complex environment.”
Flipping the Coin
Inattentional blindness can cause us to miss many details around us, both trivial and important. However, there is also a positive angle to consider.
“Let’s do flip it around,” Dr. Hyman says in order to end on a high-note. “The focus of the term inattentional blindness is on the stuff that you don’t become aware of. But, that isn’t the term that Ulric used when he
was first developing his methodology of complex visual events through people passing basketballs. He used the term selective looking to emphasize how people can become selectively focused on one event, and not be distracted
by other things.”
This creates a question of which side of the coin you want to look at. “One way of looking at it is that inattentional blindness is our failing to notice things that we want to become aware of. But, the other view is that, with
selectively focused attention, we are actually able to maintain focus on a complex task, even when there are possible distractions around us.”
Hyman, I. E., Jr., Boss, S. M., Wise, B. M., McKenzie, K. E., & Caggiano, J. M. (2010). Did you see the unicycling clown? Inattentional blindness while walking and talking on a cell phone. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 24,
Hyman, I. E., Jr., Sarb, A. B., & Wise-Swanson, B. M. (2014). Failure to see money on a tree: Inattentional blindness for objects that guided behavior. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1–7. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00356
Neisser, U. (1976). Cognition and reality: Principles and implications of cognitive psychology. San Francisco, CA: Freeman and Company.
Neisser, U. (1979). The control of information pickup in selective looking. In H. Pick (Ed.), Perception and its development: A tribute to Eleanor J. Gibson (pgs. 201–219), New York, NY: Halsted Press.
Neisser, U., & Becklen, R. (1975). Selective looking: Attending to visually specified events. Cognitive Psychology, 7> 480–494. https://doi.org/10.1016/0010-0285(75)90019-5
Simons, D. J., & Chabris, C. F. (1999). Gorillas in our midst: Sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events. Perception, 28, 1059–1074. https://doi.org/10.1068/p281059