Inattentional Blindness: What It Is And How It May Affect You

Updated November 25, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Inattentional blindness generally refers to the phenomenon of not seeing a stimulus despite it being in your visual field, usually because you’re focused on something else or are not prepared for that particular stimulus. Distracted driving and multitasking are activities in which inattentional blindness can be common. Although inattentional blindness can be normal and is experienced by most people, online therapy may be helpful if you feel that inattentional blindness is having a negative impact on your daily life.

Want To Improve Your Inattentional Blindness?

Inattentional Blindness Defined

Inattentional blindness is a psychological phenomenon in which a person may not see or perceive an object, person, or another stimulus despite it being in their visual field, usually because the stimulus is unexpected. What exactly does that mean? It can mean that you may not see something that is right in front of you if your mind is not expecting or looking for that particular thing.

Having a proper definition for inattentional blindness may allow you to understand that this is not a form of physical blindness and it is not related to a physical eye defect. It can be thought of as a psychological phenomenon, and it can be quite common. In fact, nearly everyone can experience inattentional blindness from time to time. Sometimes, our minds simply can't take in all the information available to us, and we subconsciously prioritize certain types of information over others.

Now that you know the definition of inattentional blindness, you may have realized that you’ve experienced this phenomenon yourself. Read on to discover whether inattentional blindness may be hampering the way you function day-to-day.

Inattentional Blindness In Depth

Let’s discuss exactly what inattentional blindness is and what it may mean for you. First, it may be helpful to know that inattentional blindness is often called perceptual blindness because you do not perceive a stimulus that is present.

Many people often assume that if our eyes are open, we are seeing, but that may not always be the case. If you've ever experienced someone getting frustrated with you because they saw something and think you should have too, then you may understand how this could happen. The truth is that even large objects in our visual field may pass by our attention and go unnoticed.

Seeing can be very much about attention, perception, and focus. Two people in the same room, for example, may take in completely different details based on what they are expecting or what they are focusing on.

As researchers have discovered, our eyes do not always record everything in their field as a video camera would. That is, if we do not pay attention to an object when we see it, then we may not remember it, no matter how intently we focus on our visual memory. This very point has been illustrated in a study that involved participants watching a video of a basketball game.

The study participants were asked to count how many times the players in white shirts passed the ball to each other. Because their focus was on a particular task that involved particular people in the video, half the participants never saw a person in a gorilla suit enter the footage, stand in the center of the basketball game, look at the camera, and thump their chest. Inattentional blindness can be wonderful for times when we need to focus on a particular task, but it can mean .

Does it matter if we miss some visual details? If you think about all the tasks people engage in when they need to pay attention to what they are seeing, you may quickly realize that inattentional blindness can be a big problem in some situations. Consider driving a vehicle, for instance. If you're not expecting a tire to be on the road, you may not see it until you're about to hit it, even if you are paying attention to where you are going.

Examples And Consequences

Distracted driving is perhaps the most easily understood example of inattentional blindness, and it's one that can have significant consequences. Because we may have difficulty focusing our attention on all the available stimuli, but we are unaware of which things we are failing to perceive, actions like talking on a cell phone while driving can greatly increase the chance of us having an accident because we don't see a person, object, or another vehicle in our path.

You may think that you are perfectly capable of watching the road while you are focused on a phone call or sending a text message. The truth is, however, that study after study shows that when we are focused on another task, we often fail to see the things that are directly in front of us, like another car's brake lights coming on. That means you could wait too long to brake, even if you were looking directly at the car in front of you. Our innate lack of ability to focus on too many stimuli at once can cause us to look without actually seeing.

In The Workplace And At Home

Here's another example of how inattentional blindness can affect our everyday life. Employers often ask their employees to multitask to complete work objectives. In reality, the work done often becomes much less efficient when we multitask. Because we can only pay attention to so many variables at once, we can miss things, and the quality of our work is frequently reduced.

Another way that inattentional blindness can show up in our lives is when we don't hear another person enter a room or tell us something because we are absorbed in some form of entertainment. You've probably had this happen to you. You're watching a TV show, playing a video game, or reading a book, and you might miss what someone is trying to say to you or show you.

You may have also been on the other side of that situation. Parents often feel like their children are intentionally ignoring them, but many times it may just be that the child is absorbed with some other stimulus.

Change Blindness

Change blindness is similar to inattentional blindness in that it can also be considered a psychological phenomenon by which we fail to perceive certain visual stimuli. That being said, there are some minor differences between the two phenomena. Inattentional blindness is generally when we fail to see an object or another stimulus in our field of vision. Change blindness, however, is typically when we fail to notice a change to an object that we are already aware of.

This failure to notice change could mean that you don't perceive the object as moving or changing color, as just a couple of examples. You might think that you would notice a dramatic shift in what you are seeing, but again, research indicates that we tend not to notice unexpected changes in our visual perception.

Examples Of Change Blindness

Here are a couple of hypothetical examples of how change blindness works. If, for example, you are reading a website and focusing on the content of the words, you might not notice if the color of the background changes while you're reading. That could be because even though you are looking at the page, your focus is not on the color of the background.

Another example could be if you are talking to someone, and while you aren't looking, they change into a different jacket from the one they were wearing when you began talking to them. Many people would not notice the difference, especially if they didn’t know the person they were talking to and had never seen either of their jackets before.

These lapses in attention can lead to slip-ups like mistaking another server at a restaurant for the one who was serving your table or failing to catch a problem in the task you're performing at work.

Want To Improve Your Inattentional Blindness?

When it comes to both change blindness and inattentional blindness, certain characteristics can increase a particular person's perception. We may be more likely to notice familiar stimuli or changes that occur in an area where we specialize. For instance, someone who works as an editor for a living would probably be more likely to catch unexpected errors in a story or article than the average reader who is not looking for spelling or grammar errors.

Inattentional Blindness In Daily Life

All of us will likely experience inattentional blindness at some point. Our minds may not always be able to process every bit of stimuli we are exposed to. This may be one of the reasons that living and working in communities can be so helpful for people. We may somewhat depend on other humans to notice the things that we do not. The chances are that while you may be focused on one thing, your partner or coworker may be focused on something else entirely. Of course, we most likely cannot depend on someone else to focus on all the important information we need to absorb in a day.

Unchecked inattentional blindness can lead to various problems. Consider, for a moment, a nurse who may be so focused on the amount of medicine to give they fail to notice a particular part of the directions for safely administering the drug. This could seriously harm a patient.

Or let's say you keep your lunch in a particular place in the work refrigerator every day, but one day, a coworker moves it to make room for their lunch, and you end up grabbing the wrong container, despite the packaging looking different from yours. This may be a less serious error, but it can illustrate how our expectations can affect what we notice.

If you find yourself often making errors at work that you feel you should have caught the first time around, or if you frequently make social gaffes because you're unobservant about cues from the people you are talking to, then inattentional blindness or change blindness may be at play.

Online Therapy May Improve Inattentional Blindness

Inattentional blindness can be related to cognitive abilities, and in many cases, cognitive skills can be learned, practiced, and trained. That means that if you experience frequent inattentional blindness that hinders your daily tasks or relationships, then you may be able to improve your perception and focusing skills.  can be a good start to learn focusing strategies and mitigate the social consequences of frequent inattentional blindness.

If you’ve noticed that inattentional blindness is affecting your daily life, you might be experiencing stress or anxiety about the issue. According to this study, online therapy can be effective in many situations, but can be particularly helpful in alleviating symptoms of stress and anxiety. 

Conclusion

When you don’t see something, even though it’s right in front of you, you might be experiencing inattentional blindness. This often happens when you’re not expecting to see the specific stimulus in front of you or when you are focused on something else. Two situations in which inattentional blindness can be common are multitasking and distracted driving. Although most people experience inattentional blindness, and it may be considered a normal phenomenon, you may wish to consider online therapy if inattentional blindness is causing you stress or affecting your daily life in a significant way.

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