Tunnel vision

Imagine that you’re jogging down a path and, just off to the side, someone is getting violently attacked by two thugs. What are the odds that you would run right by and not only take no action to help, but fail to even register the scene at all? Fairly high, according to the latest research, if you’d been focusing on something else that required your concentrated attention.

A recent experiment by a team of psychologists asked subjects to run at a fixed distance behind a jogger and keep track of how many times he touched his hat. About a minute into the run, study participants passed a staged 2-on-1 fight that was choreographed to look as though the victim was being punched, kicked and thrown to the ground. When the experiment was conducted at night, only a third of the subjects reported seeing the fight. Even in broad daylight, just under half of the study participants failed to notice it.

Kind of incredible, right? I love learning about this stuff, so I read up. Here’s a cool related experiment I found that’s worth checking out, too.

It turns out that the phenomenon of inattentional blindness – or the inability to perceive something obvious that is taking place right in front of us – is an inescapable byproduct of the way our brains function. We can’t possibly absorb the sheer number of stimuli we’re bombarded with in a given second, so our brain zooms in on those things it thinks we should pay attention to and filters out the rest. Yes, all of our brains do this, unbidden, even the brains of those of us who like to think that we can cross the street and text at the same time without falling into an open manhole on Third Avenue, which I almost did last week.

So survival is one important reason to be aware of inattentional blindness, but there are others, too. In situations where we’re applying a narrow focus to a particular task or process, overlooking the fight taking place on the sidelines without realizing it can lead to all kinds of unintended, usually negative, consequences. The added fact that most of us assume that we actually are seeing and taking in everything that’s going on around us – and that others are, too – creates even more trouble (as anyone who’s ever read an Agatha Christie mystery knows). The real life case that inspired the jogger/fight experiment offers a great example of this.

7qNEQWe’re also particularly susceptible to inattentional blindness in situations that are familiar to us, when we have a high degree of certainty about what is likely to happen next because we’ve done it successfully many times before (i.e., crossing the street safely while texting) and are therefore not primed to pay attention to unexpected yet highly relevant new data (e.g., an open manhole). In fact, it’s considered to be one of the most common causes of medication dosage errors made by experienced nurses. Remember that incident a couple of years ago when two Northwest Airlines pilots overshot the Minneapolis airport by 150 miles because they were so engrossed in trying to learn a new scheduling software program on their computer? Same thing.

Failure to notice incremental changes that occur over time – whether in company culture, product quality, safety conditions or even aesthetics – is another form of inattentional blindness that can lead to disastrous outcomes. The post-tsunami catastrophe at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan is a cautionary tale about how badly things can veer off the rails when managers and the companies they work for opt for complacency over innovation. You could draw a similar parallel with the Murdochs’ stewardship of News Corporation. How else could they have failed to become aware that many of their senior executives were authorizing illegal wire tapping on a routine basis?

So, what’s the antidote to inattentional-induced blindness? I have a couple of thoughts but would love to hear your comments, too. It seems to me that just being aware of the phenomenon is a good first step towards combating it. Beyond that, asking people to serve as a second set of eyes / ears when you’re feeling socked in or, better yet, participate in the idea-generating stage of a project, is an excellent way to broaden your mental net. When you’re working on repetitive tasks, take frequent breaks and try to put yourself in mindset of someone who’s new to the process. At the corporate level, seeking out (and responding to!) frequent and candid feedback from employees at every level of the organization as well as outside stakeholders can go a long way towards nipping complacency in the bud.

As for me, I am trying to confine my texting to street corners and sidewalks only.

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