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15 December 2020

Inattentional Blindness: Why We Miss What is Right Before Our Eyes

Jairek Robbins

There is a famous situational awareness test called “the basketball test” which has held the attention of researchers and laypeople alike for decades. What is this test all about and what are its implications in your everyday life? Read on and discover the answers to these, and other pertinent questions.

The basketball test

In this test, participants are asked to watch a short clip of two teams of people passing a basketball to each other. One team is dressed in white while the other team is dressed in black. The study participants are asked to count how many passes of the ball one of the teams makes.

However, the real test is to find out how many of the people watching will notice an unusual detail in the action on the screen. In this case, a person dressed in a gorilla suit walks onto the screen, thumps their chest, and then moonwalks away. This gorilla stays on the screen for nearly 10 seconds.

What is interesting, or even shocking, is the discovery that nearly half of the people watching the clip totally miss the moonwalking gorilla. How can this be?

Why we become blind to things happening right before our eyes

Psychologists have tried to explain why we inadvertently become blind to things right in front of us. They can this “inattentional blindness.” They say that when our attention is taken up by something, we tend to miss other things or events which aren’t relevant to what we are focused upon.

In the situational awareness experiment above, for example, most of the participants are so engrossed in counting the number of passes made by their team of interest that the moonwalking gorilla doesn’t register in their awareness even if it remains on the screen for so long. We at times develop tunnel vision and totally block out everything else!

Another explanation for the “invisible” moonwalking bear is that we have limited resources when it comes to how much sensory information we can process at a time. Consequently, our mind automatically sieves out sensory input which is out of line with what we are focused upon.

In the experiment above, the moonwalking bear has nothing to do with the ball being passed around, so it doesn’t register in the awareness of the participants. This conservation of mental resources may explain why many prominent CEOs and entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg choose what clothes to wear once and never have to make that decision on a daily basis. They are preserving their mental resources for tasks they consider important!

What are the implications of the situational awareness test in your life?

The implications of the situational awareness test results can be broadly categorized into two, and what you make of those findings depends on which side of the divide you belong.

First, the shocking finding that nearly half of all participants miss the moonwalking bear is a humbling reminder that we don’t notice a lot of the things around us as we often think we do. 

We like to think that our eyes are always open and we notice a lot happening around us, but as the experiment so powerfully shows, this isn’t always the case.

So, what can you do about this? The first step to solving any problem is to be aware that the problem exists, and then take corrective action whenever possible.

In this case, you can try to train yourself to “expect the unexpected” at all times. As you gain more experience in noting down unexpected details, you will get better at spotting the “moonwalking gorilla” in whatever form it takes in your business, relationship or job.

However, there is a limit as to how much situational awareness we can muster given that it is natural for the mind to prioritize where our attention should go given the overwhelming sensory input we are bombarded with.

This brings us to the second way to use the findings of the situational awareness experiment. Once you realize that our minds are always selecting high priority things to pay attention to and then blocking out all else, you can harness this natural tendency to your advantage.

For example, we have already alluded to the approach taken by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. In order to preserve his resources of attention for only important issues, he has opted to wear the same type and color of T-shirt every day so that he doesn’t have to pick what to wear on a daily basis.

We are not suggesting that you ditch your wardrobe in favor of wearing the same outfits daily. Rather, you can learn from the Zuckerbergs of this world and be very selective regarding the things you give your attention.

For example, since our powers of focus are finite, you are likely to get mediocre results if you dabble in too many things (business ideas, relationship partners, etc.) at the same time. It is far better to focus on one thing at a time, and then shift your attention to something else once the previous undertaking reaches a level where it doesn’t demand so much of your attention.

A practical example is starting a business. Don’t start several unrelated businesses at the same time. Instead, start one, grow and create systems around it, and once it can almost run without you, pick another business idea to pursue.

In summary…

We tend to overrate how much we are aware of the happenings around us. The situational awareness test shows that we often miss the moonwalking bear, and this is a human weakness we all have to varying degrees.

Research is still ongoing to look into the full implications of our limited situational awareness (inattentional blindness). For example, how does the tendency to miss certain details within our environment affect other aspects of our lives? Do people who notice “the moonwalking bear” have some benefits or drawbacks associated with this ability?

As research searches for answers to those questions which arise, we can all benefit from the realization that our situational awareness has limitations, and we can take steps to improve it wherever possible, or better yet, recognize this limitation and make choices to reduce the adverse effects of our limited situational awareness. Please share in the comments below an experience you recall when you missed a “moonwalking bear” right in front of you.

To Your Success,

Jairek Robbins



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