As humans, we are surprisingly adept at not noticing things. But just to prove it, researchers occasionally get the funding to conduct wonderfully entertaining studies that prove just how oblivious we can be. One involved getting people half drunk – just enough to miss seeing a stranger in a bear suit, but not quite drunk enough to definitely see Joe Biden in an elephant costume. That’s a fine distinction that’s not easy to duplicate in the lab.
The idea of doing a can-you-see-the-dude-in-an-animal-suit study goes back to a famous trial in 1999, where subjects were asked to count the number of times the people wearing white passed the basketball. Here’s the video:
Half the participants in the study didn’t see the simian. The conclusion drawn from this is that people misjudge their own ability to notice significant, unexpected events while they are are concentrating on a task. It’s called “Inattentional Blindness”.
As far as I can figure, this type of blindness is inattentional, unintentional, and surprisingly conventional. No matter how you re-arrange that sentence, it’s fun to say, although most people will totally miss it if you try to make it a punch line.
A couple of weeks ago, I took my wife’s Toyota to the priciest, slickest car wash in our part of town – the closest thing we have to a spa for automobiles. I signed the vehicle up for an exterior / interior makeover. On the outside it got a nice thorough cleaning and a thick coat of wax. On the inside, it was given the brisk but professional attention of a swarm of guys with vacuums and polishing cloths. It’s not as indulgent as sending the thing off to a luxury retreat in the Sonoran Desert for a crude oil bath and new-car-smell aromatherapy, but if I were a 2009 coupe, I would feel rejuvenated.
Of course, if I were an automobile that incorporated even a few of my human personality traits, I would be the subject of a very expensive lawsuit right now.
When I walked out into the drying-off area to re-claim the vehicle, I noticed the emergency flashers had been turned on. “Nice touch”, I thought. “They’re concerned about safety.” Plus, it gave the impression to everyone nearby that something significant had just happened. When I slid behind the wheel I couldn’t immediately see how to turn the flashers off and more cars were coming out of the wash line behind me, so I drove out to the street and parked, blinking all the way.
Looking over the dashboard, I checked the area around the radio, near the temperature controls, all the way down the console to the gearshift. Nothing. I tried the stalks on either side of the steering column. One controlled the lights, the other the windshield washers. Nope. I looked around the cruise control buttons, the instrument cluster, overhead where the sunroof switches are located. No emergency flasher button. Weird. By its very nature of being a necessary feature in times of stress, the emergency button should be easy to find. I looked at all the places again and again with the same result each time. I pulled out the owners manual and found no listing under “Emergency” or “Warning”. I looked through the “lights” section. I checked out the dashboard illustration. Why weren’t they telling me anything about the dang flashers?
Time was running out. The car was due back at home ten minutes ago, but I didn’t want to drive it with my blinkers going, so I swallowed my pride and walked back up to the car wash exit where the same platoon of guys were busily polishing and drying off the next and the next in an endless stream of vehicles.
“You guys turned on my emergency flashers,” I yelled to a manger-type over the sound of the mechanical drying equipment, “and I know I should be able to find the switch, but I can’t.”
He didn’t roll his eyes, but I could tell he wanted to.
We walked out to the car. He opened the door, reached in, and without looking, tapped a HUGE button in the middle of the dashboard. The button bore a mammoth red triangle large enough to post as a warning sign on the back of an Amish mega-bus.
I laughed out loud at the absurdity of it all, and thanked him. He said nothing, and just walked away, shaking his head. “Jerk,” I thought. “I just gave you a great story about a numbskull with inattentional blindness, and for this I get no gratitude.”
Now that I think back on it, he might have been wearing a gorilla suit.
When have you suffered from Inattentional Blindness?