Change Blindness (Definition + Examples)

Have you ever seen a movie with continuity errors? It’s amazing how many we fail to see! Change blindness can cause us to miss big changes in our environment. It’s a fascinating phenomenon in the world of psychology, and it shows us how easily our minds can play tricks on us! 

What Is Change Blindness? 

Change Blindness is when people fail to notice visual changes in their environment. These changes could be glaringly obvious if you’re paying attention to them. But if you’re not paying close attention, or something else catches your eye, these “obvious” changes could go unnoticed. 

Examples of Change Blindness In Movies

It’s not easy to make a movie. Sometimes, people make mistakes and continuity errors appear in a film. 

There are plenty of well-known continuity errors that you probably never noticed! For example: 

  • In the movie New Moon, Jacob has a new tattoo. But the location of that tattoo is rarely consistent throughout the movie! It appears on the top of his arm, and then lower down his arm in other shots. 
  • In Blade Runner, Zhora’s stunt double is shown. A lot. With some pretty obvious close-up shots. 
  • Also in Blade Runner, Roy Batty dies in a storm at night. Shortly after, a pair of doves is released – to a cloudless, beautiful sunny day. 
  • In one of the biggest scenes of Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, we watch Jim Carrey solve a mystery as Vincent Cadby plays chess next to him. In a later shot, all of the chess pieces are gone! In an even later shot, the chess pieces come back!

movie scenes with continuity errors

Inattentional Blindness vs. Change Blindness

studies testing different types of blindness

In 1999, psychologists Chris Chabris and Dan Simons conducted what is now known as “The Invisible Gorilla Experiment.” In the experiment, participants watched a video of people passing basketballs back and forth. They were instructed to count how many times the basketballs were passed. 

During the video, a person in a gorilla suit walked through the circle. But a shocking number of participants didn’t notice the gorilla’s presence. 

This experiment led to the creation of the term “inattentional blindness.” This term is often confused with change blindness. Let’s go over the difference between these two phenomena. 

Inattentional blindness is the failure to recognize visual objects when you are focused on something else. The participants were so focused on the people passing the basketballs that they failed to see the gorilla. 

If the gorilla has always been in the environment, but participants failed to see the gorilla change fur colors or put on a shirt, then change blindness would have occurred. 

Change blindness is the failure to notice changes to visual objects as they happen. During the change, you have recognized all of the visual objects that are in your environment. You just don’t see when those objects have shifted, transformed, or changed entirely. 

Inattentional blindness is caused by a sharp focus on something in your environment. Change blindness may be caused by a lack of focus or other factors. 

What Causes Change Blindness? 

There are a few reasons why we might experience change blindness, including:

  • Distractions
  • Expectations
  • Manipulation 

Distraction 

Would the change blindness experiment have worked as well if the door didn’t pass in front of the pedestrian and the actor? No! Without the door, the pedestrian would have remained focused on the actor, and it would have been easy to notice the change. But a distraction takes our attentionaway from the visual object that changes, and therefore we don’t see the change happening. 

Expectations

Take the scene in Ace Ventura. We are able to take in the scene with the chess board, Jim Carrey, and Vincent Cadby. A number of shots include the chess board filled with pieces. 

There is a lot going on as the camera cuts back and forth, but we’re in the same room. By the time we get to the scene without the chess pieces, our minds have already started to “fill in the blanks.” We don’t have to visually process every single piece of the set that the cameras are showing – that would be exhausting. We expect there to be chess pieces on the board. Why wouldn’t there be? Plus, we have to hear how Ace is going to solve the case! 

So our mind takes “shortcuts” and fills in the blanks. Unfortunately, this often means filling in the blanks where changes have occurred. 

Manipulation 

Change blindness doesn’t always happen by accident. Movie magic (or magic tricks) are made more exciting by change blindness. When manipulation goes wrong, we can see the blatant changes between an actor and their stunt double. When the scene is manipulated just right, we notice no difference. 

magician showing a full deck of cards

Who Discovered Change Blindness?  

In 1995, researchers studied how continuity errors could go completely unnoticed by viewers. What they found was that these errors were more likely to go unnoticed if there was a flicker in the screen between changes. Viewers might have noticed Jacob’s tattoo moving up and down his arm, but they probably didn’t because it was interrupted by shots of Bella or other shots in the movie. 

Changes in Pedestrians 

One of the most famous studies on change blindness took place shortly after the study on continuity errors. DJ Simons and Daniel Levin published this study in 1998, called “Failure to detect changes to people during a real-world interaction.” 

This study became famous because it showed that change blindness doesn’t just occur in a 2D space. We experience change blindness “out in the real world,” too. 

In the study, an actor struck up a conversation with a pedestrian on the street. They began to ask for directions. As the pedestrian gave the directions, two more actors walked in between the pedestrian and the first actor. During this time, the first actor was switched out with another actor, but pretended to be the first actor. 

Half of the pedestrians didn’t notice the change! 

Change Blindness Is Normal.

We are all tricked by change blindness in our everyday lives. Maybe you fail to notice someone’s haircut or that they’ve changed into a new outfit. Maybe that magic trick really does look like magic. Change blindness isn’t a bad thing, but it’s something to be aware of. Our minds don’t always catch everything that happens in front of us.

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Theodore T.

Theodore is a professional psychology educator with over 10 years of experience creating educational content on the internet. PracticalPsychology started as a helpful collection of psychological articles to help other students, which has expanded to a Youtube channel with over 2,000,000 subscribers and an online website with 500+ posts.