Monday, March 3, 2014

Inattentional blindess: Where's Emily?

The other day there was a knock at the door.  Our door’s textured window prevented me from seeing clearly who it was, but I could tell it was a young woman.  I impulsively concluded, without reason, that she was one of the environmental advocates that come by our house every few months—asking for a signature on their most recent petition and a financial contribution.  They’ve been here before and their pitch, honed I suspect by a careful reading of Cialdini, is effective—and annoying.  I support environmental initiatives—but I’m not a fan of uninvited front door solicitations.   Yet I’m on their list.  Already annoyed, I prepared myself to listen politely, to sign the petition if I was in agreement, to say no to the financial request, and then firmly ask for my name to be taken off the door-to-door contact list. 

When I opened the door, there was indeed a young college age woman – exactly what I expected.  But she didn’t have a clipboard and she didn’t say anything.  She just stood there, looking at me and smiling. I was caught off guard, at a loss for words.  Where was her clipboard?  Where was the greeting and the explanation of why she was there?  How could I deflect her pitch when she wasn’t saying anything?  I must have looked a bit silly for a moment, staring blankly and stuttering.  This was not what I expected.  Then it hit me: this wasn’t an environmental advocate, this was Emily, my niece.  She lives down the street and dropped by to visit. I’ve known her all her life.  I see her several times a week. She usually comes in the back door, but today she is knocking at the front door.   Emily laughed aloud: “Mark, it’s me, what’s wrong? You don’t recognize your own niece?”  

In fact, I hadn’t at first – because I was sure the person at the door was someone else. 

This was an example of inattentional blindness--the failure to notice something unexpected.  I was looking for someone else, the environmental advocate, and couldn’t see who was actually there, my niece.  

Emily and I had a laugh but in other situations this phenomenon can have dangerous consequences. Consider the recent incident of a man who mistook a cell phone for what he expected to see in the hands of a young black male—a gun—and shot him.

The same phenomenon also plays out when conflicted family members see one another through fixed mindsets.   Two alienated brothers are convinced that their mother is too stupid to tie her shoelaces—and quickly relate the evidence.  But when asked about her insightful comments and clever remarks during family therapy sessions, they don’t remember her making these statements.  Indeed, they deny that she did—they are blind and deaf to what they don’t expect. 

In another instance, one parent was convinced by a psychologist’s evaluation that the other parent is a narcissist.  This parent can “see” the other parent’s self-focused behaviors readily enough, but is blind to the other parent’s genuine efforts to attend to their children’s needs and feelings. 

It’s hard not to be blindsided by inattentional blindness.  But to learn more, click here.

1 comment:

  1. As a friend of mine put it, people believe what they want to believe. And they see what they expect to see, and hear what they want to hear. (I wonder if they smell what they wanted to smell. I bet not.)