If a gorilla walked into the middle of a basketball court, do you think you would see it?
You probably said, “Yes.” But you might be wrong. Many people in a landmark 1999 psychology experiment failed to see the gorilla. The experiment helped to show the existence of a fascinating phenomenon called “inattentional blindness.” It’s something that affects all of us. No matter how often we tell ourselves that we will see the gorilla, our brains may miss it.
This page is about inattentional blindness and how it affects our everyday lives. The more you are aware of inattentional blindness, the more aware you will be of people trying to manipulate it for their gain.
What is Inattentional Blindness?
Inattentional blindness is the inability to see visible objects due to one’s focus on a certain set of stimuli. The visible objects are usually unexpected, like the gorilla.
Inattentional blindness Examples
Have you ever found yourself saying, “That car came out of nowhere!”
Then you’ve probably experienced inattentional blindness. Your focus may be on one part of the road (or on your navigation system), and you fail to see a car coming from the other direction or from behind you. Distracted driving isn’t just illegal in some states - it’s seriously dangerous.
Maybe you are taking a photo of your friends and overlook the photobomber in the background. This is another common example of inattentional blindness.
Multitasking increases the chances that we will experience inattentional blindness. Did you know only 2% of people can successfully multitask? When our mind is focused on the text message that we just read, we increase our chances of seeing something else that might be in our workbook or another task at hand.
Inattentional Blindness vs. Change Blindness
Let’s say you are chatting with someone and tasked with giving them directions. During the task, you fail to notice they have changed shirts or put on a hat.
Is that inattentional blindness?
Inattentional blindness is similar to, but not the same as, change blindness. Change blindness occurs when changes happen in our environment. Inattentional blindness is the failure to see what is happening right in front of us because we simply are not paying attention.
Change blindness has been around for quite a long time - it was first discussed in the 1970s. Studies like the Invisible Gorilla Experiment came decades after the term “change blindness.”
The Invisible Gorilla + Other Experiments
The Invisible Gorilla experiment did not create the term “inattentional blindness.” The phenomenon first appeared in a 1992 book of the same name. In the book, psychologists Arien Mack and Irvin Rock claim that we cannot consciously perceive the world unless we pay attention to it.
The Invisible Gorilla experiment came seven years after Inattentional Blindness was published.
Psychologists Chris Chabris and Dan Simons gave participants a task. They would have to watch two teams pass basketballs back and forth. One team wore white shirts and only passed to other people in the white shirts. One team wore black shirts and only passed to other people in black shirts. The psychologists told participants they would have to count how many times either the team in white shirts or black shirts passed the ball.
But the psychologists didn’t want to know how often the team passed the ball. They wanted to see if the participants would notice a man in a gorilla suit walk through the basketball game, stop, beat his chest, and walk away.
Not everyone saw the gorilla. In fact, around half of all participants failed to see the man in the gorilla suit. They were so focused on the task at hand - counting the passes - that they were “blind” to the unexpected stimuli.
Shapes and Crosses
In 2001, another experiment showed how unique, almost shocking items could go unnoticed. Participants were placed in front of a computer that displayed black and white shapes moving across the screen. They were tasked with watching the black shapes and ignoring the white ones. Only 70% of participants noticed the bright red cross that made its way across the computer screen for a full five seconds.
Factors That Affect Your Attention
Why do we fail to see changes in front of us? Why do we fail to see unexpected stimuli? Some psychologists believe that when our brains are focused on one set of stimuli, they tend to “fill in the blanks” by pulling on the existing schema.
When is a stimulus “unexpected” enough to be subject to inattentional blindness? When are we “focused” enough to lose our ability to see what is before us? The answers vary, but psychologists have used the results from the experiments and tests mentioned above to determine what affects our attention and inattentional blindness.
Let’s go back to the Invisible Gorilla experiment. Remember how the two teams were wearing either white shirts or black shirts? The shirts impacted the participant’s ability to see the gorilla. When the participants were asked to watch the team with the white shirts, they only saw the gorilla around 40% of the time. When they focused on the team with the black shirts, they saw the gorilla closer over 80% of the time. The gorilla had black fur, making it arguably more accessible for the participants to notice the black fabric and then notice the gorilla.
Other factors that can easily subject us to inattentional blindness include:
- Focusing on more than one task at a time
- Tracking fast-moving objects vs. slow-moving objects
- Trying to commit something to memory while performing the task
Subliminal Messages and Advertising
You are not the first person to learn about inattentional blindness. Inattentional blindness has been a known phenomenon for decades. If you are trying to sell something or get a certain message across subtly, inattentional blindness sounds like an appealing manipulation tactic.
Maybe like, subliminal messaging?
Okay, let’s back up. Sure, it seems easy to connect flashing words on a screen with the unconscious desire to buy products or even vote for a certain political candidate. However, the studies on subliminal messaging are limited, and they show that subliminal messages as we know them don’t exactly work in the way that advertisers might like. Mentions of products or brands within the greater plot of a movie or television episode might nudge us toward that brand. Still, subliminal messaging and inattentional blindness don’t make us brainwashed drones.