The Illusion of Attention


Before you do anything and read any further, watch this video:

That was fun! I love these things that teach us about how our minds work.

I have to admit, I didn’t see the gorilla. I was so focused on getting the number of passes right. It turns out it’s not so shocking that I missed the gorilla, though. Across diverse audiences, under different conditions and in different countries, 50% of people didn’t see the gorilla. What is shocking is that I was sceptical that I could possibly miss seeing such an obvious thing, and I replayed the video just to see if it was true. Yes, the gorilla really did come on the screen, and I completely missed it; it was invisible.

I guess this isn’t really shocking, though, since 75% of people say they believe they would notice something unexpected even if they were focusing on something else. The illusion is not that we don’t see the gorilla (unexpected things); the illusion is that we don’t think we won’t see them. We might think we know our minds and how they work, but in this case, most of us are wrong.

This experiment appears in a wonderful book called The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. Take a look at their website for more fun videos and information:

This article comes from the first chapter of the book, “I Think I Would Have Seen That.” It speaks of “inattentional blindness” where our brains have a limited ability to pay attention. If we pay more attention to one thing, we pay less attention to other things; there’s no endless supply of attention. We can’t focus on everything at once, and even though we think we can multitask well, experiments have shown the more tasks a person does simultaneously, the overall performance of each task decreases.

Our mind is a limited resource. For example, when people were asked to count the number of aerial and bounce passes between players—like in the invisible gorilla video—while talking on a mobile phone, it was found they could still count, but it increased their chances of missing the gorilla. Increasing the amount of attention needed to go into counting two types of passes meant that less attention was available to notice the gorilla.

Now, apply this to driving while talking on a mobile phone. We can still go through the mechanical motions of driving—turning the wheel and pushing the pedals—but our attention given to the person on the other end of the phone means we’re more likely to miss unexpected events like a cyclist, pedestrian or even a car approaching or turning. This should be enough to convince us not to talk on the phone while driving. If you don’t believe this, you’re experiencing the illusion of attention.

Not convinced, read the book.

Cover of "The Invisible Gorilla: And Othe...

Cover via Amazon

4 responses »

  1. I know these days everybody is multitasking, which is not a bad thing when you’re at home, like cooking something and listening to radio, but it does scare me when I see people on the street focused deeply in their smartphones and crossing the streets without looking. And what about the bicycle riders that listen music on their headphones? can they actually hear if a car honks at them? Especially now when cars’ engines are so quiet.

    • Even I think I multitask well, but I know to doubt my own knowledge. It is worrying when you see how absorbed people are on their phones. I think we’re all too busy rushing and trying to do so much when we should just enjoy each thing. It’s in our culture everywhere, though, even on the internet how we skim read making it hard to take anything in because we’re in such a rush to read more, more, more. And yes, I always turn down the radio in the car when I approach a corner I have to give way at.

  2. Both Derren Brown and Richard Wiseman illustrate this effect of the brain wonderfully and in differing ways. Derren Brown is self-billed as a “psychological illusionist” using magic and illusion to reveal how the brain and mind process and work, and Richard Wiseman, although an amateur magician, is a psychologist who also adminsters a blog (among other sites) to reveal and explain the ways and effects of the brain and mind’s processes. If you enjoyed learning about the Invisible Gorilla, you will probably enjoy the work of both these men.

    Magicians Penn & Teller also gave an incredible symposium on how and why magic “works”, they explain the effects on the brain and mind, touting this “attention deficit” as one the key components of why and how magic works. It is actually quite easy to fool the brain, moreso than we would like to believe about ourselves. This is the same impetus that is also revealing more and more about how and what and why there is mental illness. V.S. Ramachandran, a neuroscientist, has a wonderful special (available on YouTube) about how strange and curious the brain and mind work and proceses.

    Excellent article!

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