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Sunday, October 16, 2011

Did you see that?

Chris Chabris, a psychology professor, and his co-researcher, Daniel Simons, a psychologist, have been conducting experiments on something they call Inattentive Blindness, or Change Blindness.

Here is an interesting YouTube video showing one of their studies. It shows study participants talking to a man behind a counter. The man bends down to supposedly get a packet of info, and another man stands up and finishes the conversation. The two men were wearing different colored shirts and had different colored hair. Chabris and Simons discovered that 75% of those in the study didn't notice the change.

How is this possible? Why would such a large portion of people not see the difference? It is because our senses are surrounded by so much data, we would be overwhelmed if we tried to process it all.  So we generally take in the most important things around us.

One day Chabris and Simons heard the story of Kenneth Conley, a Boston police officer, and decided to take their experiments from the lab to real life.

The story of Conley takes place in 1995. Just like every other police officer in Boston, he was intensely interested in the police radio report that an officer had been shot and the four black suspects were fleeing by car. There were 20 police cruisers involved in the chase all over town. It ended in a cul-de-sac when the four suspects jumped out and scattered in four directions.

The first police officer out of his car was a black officer named Michael Cox. Since he worked under cover, he was dressed in plain clothes. The next officers out of their car mistook him for a suspect and attacked him. They started beating and kicking him.

Conley then arrived on the scene and joined the chase for the suspects. He ran right past Cox who was being beaten. He always claimed he never saw it happening.  Soon after he passed, the mistake was realized and the beating stopped.

He was later convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice, because he was not believed when he said he saw nothing. He was sentenced to 34 months in prison. No other officer ever came forward or was ever identified. The official report on Michael Cox's injuries, which kept him out of work for six months, was that he slipped on ice.

Chabris and Simons wanted to find out if Conley was telling the truth The instructions to the participants were simple. Follow a jogger for a certain distance along a path and count how many times he touches his hat. This was to keep the attention on the jogger, just as Conley's attention was on the suspect in front of him. Then a minute into the run, they had three students stage a fight just off the path. With two beating and kicking a third, it seemed obvious that they would be seen.

They conducted the experiment at different times of day with both men and women. They were very surprised to find that during the night hours, the same as the Conley incident, only a third of the participants noticed the fight, and during daylight hours, only 40% saw what was happening.  Chabris and Simons proved that it was possible for Conley to have missed seeing the beating, but by then he had served part of his sentence and the rest was dismissed because of a technicality.

Chabris points out that our inability to absorb visual information coupled with our mistaken belief that we actually are able to absorb a lot of it influences all kinds of behavior.

"This underlies problems with using cell phones while driving and all kinds of situations like that," Chabris says.

There is an interesting video on YouTube that will test your inattentive blindness.  Try it out.

Now you've heard something interesting.

1 comment:

  1. I love that video. It was originally an public awareness ad to watch out for cyclists in London.

    I'm the worst offender of inattentive blindness. Just ask Yulia; she's learned to get a response from me before starting a conversation.