We don’t always see what is right before our eyes, though we think we do. Inattentional blindness is a phenomenon in which we fail to perceive something in plain sight due to where we’re focusing our attention at the time. It’s one reason people fail to notice motorcycles on the road, gorillas walking through the middle of a basketball game, and all sorts of information during conflict.
A few years ago a group of Harvard psychologists conducted a study to explore the ways our agendas influence what we actually see. They asked research subjects to view a videotape of six people basketball players passing the ball and count the number of passes made by one of the teams.
In one video of the basketball game, a tall woman with an open umbrella walked through the center of the action, clearly visible for about five seconds. In a second video, a shorter woman in a gorilla costume walked through the action, also for about five seconds.
How do you miss a gorilla walking through the middle of a basketball game?
Participants in the study were asked if they’d seen anything odd. Thirty-five percent of the observers didn’t notice the woman at all. Even more surprising, 56% of the observers didn’t notice the gorilla.
A control group of research subjects were asked to watch the video without being asked to count passes. Most of these participants readily noticed the odd visitors walking through the action.
Essentially, research subjects saw only what they were asked to see, the number of passes being made. The assigned task of counting caused them to miss information that was extraneous to that task — their minds filtered it out.
This “selective looking” is a form of inattentional blindness, the phenomenon of missing conspicuous events due to where we’re focusing our attention.
Inattentional blindness in conflict
When we’re in conflict with someone, we are often predisposed to thinking or feeling about them in a certain way, based on past experience: She’s so passive-aggressive. He’s manipulative. She lies. He’s too controlling.
When we do this, we’re essentially counting basketball passes — we’re filtering out information that challenges our conclusions and beliefs, and focusing on information that supports them. This happens subconsciously and it’s one reason that someone viewing the conflict from “outside” will notice things those involved don’t.