Monday Mornings with Madison

How Selective Blindness Can Affect Business

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Most people know that when driving a car, there is a space to the left and right rear of the vehicle on both sides that is not visible using car mirrors and not seen with our peripheral vision.  This is dubbed ‘blind spots’… spaces that aren’t visible unless the person turns not just their head but also a bit of their upper body to look back.   Because blind spots cause many car accidents, many new cars now have sensors that issue a warning when a driver communicates a desire to change lanes while there is already a car in that space.  We turn to technology to protect us from what our eyes cannot see.

However, it turns out that there are things we don’t see even when our eyes are looking right at them. It is an entirely different kind of ‘blind spot.’ It is selective blindness… a vision problem that cannot be corrected with glasses or contact lenses. We are talking about things that the eyes can physically see but the brain ignores. And, it’s not just with small things like car keys and typos. It happens with big, glaring things too.

There are different types of selective blindness.  But they all share one thing in common:  they are examples of blind spots of the mind.  And they discredit the notion that seeing is believing.  In fact, we probably shouldn’t trust our lying eyes because we often see what we want to see or expect to see… not the whole picture.  Here are two examples.

Inattentional Blindness

Attention plays a major role in visual perception.  A primary reason a person might not notice something obvious is because of inattentional blindness. That is when someone is focusing so hard on one thing that they fail to notice something new and unexpected or unrelated that enters the visual field.  In other words, we see what we are paying attention to and ignore the rest.

Inattentional blindness was first observed and labeled by psychologists Arien Mack, Ph.D. of the New School for Social Research and Irvin Rock, Ph.D of the University of California, Berkeley, when they were doing experiments involving attention.  They found that people experienced an inability to see new stimuli when subjects are already focused on something else.  They saw it as a form of sighted blindness.  In fact, subjects in the experiments even failed to notice things that were big, obvious and hard to miss.

One of the best-known experiments on inattentional blindness was conducted by Christopher Chabris, Ph.D. and Daniel Simons, Ph.D. In that experiment, participants watched a video of people tossing a basketball back and forth. Participants were asked to count the number of times the ball was passed back and forth or keep track of the number of straight passes versus bounce passes. During the video, a woman dressed in a gorilla suit strolled through the scene, turned to the camera, thumped her chest, and walked away. At the end of the experiment, participants were asked if they had noticed anything unusual while watching the video. Over half of the participants reported seeing “nothing unusual”. When asked about ‘the gorilla,’ they did not know what the researcher was talking about. While it might seem absurd that the participants somehow missed seeing a gorilla, half did not notice the life-sized gorilla because they were already focused on an attention-demanding task that required both seeing an activity and counting the repetition of that activity. Simply put, their attention was elsewhere. Everything else was ignored.

The question the researchers wanted to know was why the brain would discard information that the eyes perceived?  The conclusion:  people tend to concentrate on things that are most important, relying on existing scenarios to fill in the blanks, in order to save mental energy.   The amount of mental energy needed to pay attention, perceive data and then process that information is finite. By tuning some stuff out, a person can focus on what matters most while having a complete, seamless experience.  Any data that is not essential to the task-at-hand is discarded.  That means when a person’s attention is focused on one area, non-essential stimuli that is “seen” is ignored by the brain to avoid information overload.

Case in point. In another experiment, Drs. Simons and Chabris repeated the invisible gorilla experiment, but altered one thing. Some participants had to count the number of passes made by the team members wearing black jerseys while other participants counted passes made by the team members wearing white jerseys. Only 42% of the participants counting passes made by the team members wearing white jerseys saw the gorilla. However, 83% of the participants who counted passes made by team members wearing black jerseys saw the gorilla—who was also wearing a black jersey. There was much more recognition of the gorilla when there was similarity between the unexpected stimulus (gorilla) and task-relevant stimuli (members of the team wearing the black jersey).

Further research has revealed that there are certain factors that affect inattentional blindness.

  1. Expectations – If the brain focuses on what it is looking for or expects to see based on life experiences, then essentially the brain takes in external stimuli and processes it, delivering only certain images to the conscious mind instead of all of them.  In the search for black jerseys, for example, the brain was expecting to see those and spotted those, even when it was on a gorilla  But when the brain was looking for white jerseys, it ignored all other jerseys whether it was on a team member or a gorilla.
  2. Boldness of the Visual – If whatever is in the line of vision is brighter than or in complete contrast to the area it is in, then it is likely to be perceived.  But, if the stimulus blends in with the background, then it is more likely to be overlooked or ignored.
  3. Weariness or numbness – If the brain is under the influence of alcohol or affected by tiredness, it is more likely to miss visual cues.
  4. Brain capacity – How much a person “sees” is also based on how much the brain can take in, which is impacted by intelligence, age, health, amount of sleep, and other variables.

Change Blindness

Change blindness, similar to inattentional blindness, happens when a person misses a change to an existing stimulus in the environment (instead of a new stimulus, as with inattentional blindness).

In one of the more famous experiments that demonstrated change blindness, a participant partnered with a researcher for a face-to-face conversation.  During that conversation, two men walked between them carrying a door, which blocked the view of the researcher and the participant. While that happened, the researcher swapped places with another person.  Once the door passed, the new person who replaced the researcher continued the conversation with the participant as if nothing had happened.  This experiment was repeated with 15 participants.  Of the 15, only seven noticed that the person they were speaking to had changed.  Now that is a big change… a whole human being changed.  Yet, over half of the participants failed to notice the change.  How was that possible?

To produce change blindness, the first element needed was the interruption that blocked the continuity of the setting (face-to-face conversation) if only for a few seconds. But, that was a sufficient distraction. The mind then used past experiences to fill in the gaps. The brain took a shortcut to keep continuity going and accepted that the new person speaking was the researcher.

How does Situational Selective Blindness affect Business?

Do these types of temporary situational blindness affect business and professional success?  Simply put, yes.  If our brains don’t process all of the information that comes through our senses, that lost information could play an important role in understanding a situation.  Making decisions based on partial information is always risky.

Business leaders think they know all the details of all things going on around them.  However, it appears that most of the time, people are really focused on one area at a time and many other things are being ignored or missed, even when they are in plain sight.  Managers consciously see far less of the world than they think they do.  In truth, much of the visual world is “filled in” from previous encoding and new stimuli or changing stimuli are often ignored.  That means that preconceived ideas fill in the blanks of things that could have been perceived by the eyes but not received by the mind.

Here is one example of how selective blindness could affect business.  An HR director might ignore cues about a person’s fitness for a job when asking only factual and yes/no questions and writing down his own summary of the answers.  Instead, it is recommended that interviewers ask a few broad questions and then allow the candidate to answer freely and write responses word-for-word as much as possible.  This allows the interviewer to see more fully the respondent’s actual personality, fit and skills without filling in the blanks that the mind did not process.

Just imagine the multitude of scenarios in which a leader might make decisions based on what he has ‘seen’ but is actually not seeing the full picture.  Inventory.  Sales.  Accounting.  Quality control.  Safety measures.  We rely on our eyes to help us understand a situation, but the information we are gathering is likely to be limited.  So how does a business leader avoid inattentional and change blindness at work?

1. Stop rushing.  Take time to understand a situation completely.  In the rush of ‘getting things done and knocking items off our lists’, we fail to take in the big picture.  We stop paying attention to the details under the guise of trying to avoid becoming stuck in the weeds.  Unfortunately, this keeps leaders from seeing the whole picture.  Instead, leaders should stop rushing and accept that items deemed as unimportant previously could be key.

2. Embrace humility and forego arrogance.  Studies about children and problem solving demonstrate that they try things that adults wouldn’t because they “don’t know any better.” Efficiency says to use expertise to hone in on and quickly solve a problem. But, in many situations, it is better to step back, don’t make any assumptions, feign ignorance and explore possibilities.  If details are lost when we focus too much on certain things, then the solution is to not zero in, step back and try to see the whole picture… the way a child would.

3.  Pursue different perspectives. Ask people — who are not knee deep in the company’s issues and culture — for perspectives on an issue.  They may see what someone who is too close to the situation cannot see… even things that are in plain sight.  By opening up to other viewpoints, a leader is able to benefit from the insights of others.  As the saying goes, four eyes are better than two.

4.  Ask questions.  Don’t fill in blanks.  Don’t just accept the information being provided.  Dig deeper.  A leader should ask about things for which he thinks he knows the answer.  The answer might be a surprise.

By working hard at not filling in blanks and taking time to carefully examine an issue, a leader is able to avoid the kind of blindness that can cause a company to make bad decisions based on partial information.  That is how a leader can remove the blinders in order to see 20/20.

Quote of the Week

“We’re blind to our blindness. We have very little idea of how little we know. We’re not designed to know how little we know.”
Dr. Daniel Kahneman


© 2019, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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