Can You Trust Your Eyes?
Blind with perfect eyesight!
One night in 1995, an officer was shot.
The Boston police office received a call, and police cruisers were soon in pursuit. Cornered in a cul-de-sac, the four suspects jumped from their vehicle and ran in different directions. The officers followed.
The first policeman from his car was Michael Cox, a plainclothes officer. In the chaos, several other officers mistook Cox for one of the suspects and began to assault him. He was hit in the back of the head, then brutally beaten as he lay on the pavement.
Meanwhile, another officer by the name of Kenneth Conley was in pursuit of another suspect. He ran right past the brutality against Cox and did not stop to help him.
Later, when Conley was asked about the events of the night, he told the jury he saw nothing. This was strange: the fight occurred in a well-lit area, and he should have heard the sounds of the violence.
Conley was convicted for obstruction of justice. He must have been lying, thought the jurors.
But was he?
Blind With Perfect Eyesight?
The more we learn about human cognition, the more we realize that what we perceive about the world is not the full reality. Instead, what we get is a biased and incomplete picture of events, colored by our own expectations and experiences.
Could this have been true for Kenneth Conley?
To test Conley’s claims, a college professor set up a study.
Students were asked to run and follow a researcher around campus. They were told to count how many times the researcher patted his head. The head-patting, however, was only a distraction. The point of the study was to see if students would notice a staged fight that occurred near the running route.
The study found that only about 1 in 3 participants noticed the fight.
Maybe Conley wasn’t lying.
It is possible to have perfect eyesight and yet miss something that happens right in front of you. This phenomenon is what psychologists call inattentional blindness.
Try It Out
Take a look at the following clip. Without cheating, try to count the number of times that the team in WHITE passes the basketball.
Most people, when they do this task, fail to see the amusing element that part of the scene.
This is a clear example of inattentional blindness. Because we are focused on one “important” task, we miss other things that our brain considers unimportant. Most of the time, this is useful. Sometimes, it is deadly.
Another comical example of a failure of attention are the person swap experiments done by Derren Brown.
Here’s a clip of one of the swaps:
It seems ridiculous that anyone would actually make such a mistake. But that’s just how convincing the illusion is. While some suspect that this is a staged exercise, there have been numerous instances where this behavior has been replicated.
We feel like we see everything, but we don’t.
What’s Going On?
In terms of processing power, the brain is much, much weaker than even the slowest computer.
We make up for this lack of cognitive energy by “filling in the gaps.” We only direct our attention to what we think is important. The rest is filed by “schemas”—expectations of what reality should be.
This means that attention, like time and money, is a limited resource: pay attention to one thing, and you can’t pay attention to something else.
What this also means is, in a world of many distractions, we must either learn to manage our attention or pay the price.
Now, how can we use this knowledge of inattentional blindness in order to live an aware life?
Here are some lessons we have learned:
- Avoid multitasking. Multi-tasking doesn’t work. Instead of doing two things at once, what we do is rapidly shift focus from one task to another. This is tiring and leads more mistakes. Never, ever text and drive.
- You can feel right and be wrong. Couples and business partners often get into terrible arguments because they both feel they are right. But psychology teaches us that there is always room for uncertainty. Are you sure you saw what you saw? Stay humble.
- Focus your environment. Instead of praying that you’ll pay attention when you need to, optimize your environment to minimize the chance of distraction and error. Remove distractions from your computer. Keep your room free of non-essentials. Keep your phone in the rear seat of your car.
- Expect the unexpected. Inattentional blindness is the worst when the surprise is unexpected. Drivers hit motorcycles and bikes more often than cars in part for this reason: they look for cars and miss everything else.
Up Next: Is Science Bullshit?