Is Inattentional Blindness Causing Your Problems?
Updated February 13, 2020
Reviewer Wendy Galyen, LCSW, BC-TMH
Have you heard of inattentional blindness? If not, let me define inattentional blindness for you:
A psychological phenomenon in which a person doesn't 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 means that you may not see something right in front of your face if your mind is not expecting or looking for that particular thing.
Having a proper definition allows you to understand that this is not a form of physical blindness, and it has nothing wrong to do with a defect of the eyes. It is entirely a psychological phenomenon, and it is quite common. In fact, pretty much everyone experiences inattentional blindness from time to time. Our minds simply can't take in all of the information available to us, and we subconsciously make priorities about what information we gather.
Now that you know the definition, maybe you're aware that you've experienced inattentional blindness yourself. Read on to find out whether this phenomenon is hampering your daily functioning.
What Is Inattentional Blindness?
You already have an inattentional blindness definition, but let's talk a little bit more about exactly what this phenomenon is and what it means. Inattentional blindness is also called perceptual blindness because you are not perceiving a thing that others are seeing clearly.
People often assume that if our eyes are open, we are seeing, but that's not the case. If you've ever experienced someone getting frustrated with you because they saw something and they think you should have too, then you know exactly how that is. The truth is that even large objects in our visual field can pass up our attention and go unnoticed.
Seeing is 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 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 cannot remember it, no matter how intently we focus on visual memory. This very point was illustrated clearly in a study involving 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 right in the center of the basketball game, look at the camera, and thump their chest. Of course, inattentional blindness is wonderful for times when we need to focus on a particular task, but it means we really can miss a lot of details.
Does it matter if we miss some visual details? If you think about all the tasks people use where they need to pay attention to what they are seeing, you will quickly realize that inattentional blindness can be a big problem. Consider if you are driving a vehicle. 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.
Inattentional Blindness Examples
Distracted driving is perhaps the most easily understand inattentional blindness example, and it's one that can have big consequences. Because we have difficulty focusing our attention on all the available stimuli, but we are unaware of what things we are failing to perceive, things 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, even worse because it requires visual perception, on sending a text message. The truth is, however, that study after study shows that when we are focused on another task, we 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 causes us to look without actually seeing.
Here's another example of how inattentional blindness affects our everyday life. Employers often ask workers to multitask to complete work objectives. The truth is, however, that the work done becomes much less efficient when we multitask. Because we can only pay attention to so many variables at once, we miss things, and the quality of our work is reduced.
Another way that inattentional blindness shows 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 miss what someone is trying to say to you or show you.
You may have also been on the other side of that. 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 And Inattentional Blindness
Change blindness is similar to inattentional blindness in that it is also a psychological phenomenon by which we fail to perceive certain visual stimuli. That being said, there are some minor differences between the two. Inattentional blindness is failing to see an object or another stimulus in your field of vision. Change blindness, however, is when you fail to notice a change to an object that you are already aware of.
This failure to notice change could mean that you don't perceive the object is 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 focused on the content of the words, you might not notice if the color of the background changes while you're reading. That's because even though you are looking at the page, your focus is not on the color of the background.
Another example would 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 you don't know the person you are talking to and have 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.
When it comes to both change blindness and inattentional blindness, certain characteristics can increase a particular person's perception. We are 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, or specializes in writing or grammar, would 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.
What Inattentional Blindness Means For Your Daily Life
All of us are going to experience inattentional blindness. Our minds simply cannot process every bit of stimuli we are exposed to. This is one of the reasons that living and working in communities is so helpful for people. We somewhat depend upon other humans to notice the things that we do not. The chances are that while you are focused on one thing, your partner or co-worker is focused on something else. Of course, we cannot depend on someone else for focusing on all the important information we need to absorb in a day.
Unchecked inattentional blindness can lead to real problems. Consider, for a moment, a nurse who is focused on the amount of medicine to give and fails to notice a particular part of the directions for safely administering the drug. They could seriously harm a patient under their care.
Or let's say you keep your lunch in a particular place in the work refrigerator every day, but one day a co-worker moves it to make room for their lunch, and you end up grabbing the wrong container, despite the packaging looking different from yours. This is a less serious error, but it illustrates 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 gaffs because you're unobservant about cues from the people you are talking to, then inattentional blindness or change blindness may be at play.
Inattentional blindness is related to cognitive abilities, and cognitive skills can be learned, practiced, and trained. That means that if you suffer from the frequent inattentional blindness that hinders your daily tasks or relationships, then you may be able to improve your perception and focusing skills somewhat. Guidance from a mental health professional is a good start to learn focusing strategies and mitigate the social consequences of frequent inattentional blindness.