Inattentional blindness is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when a person fails to notice something that is unexpected yet in plain sight.
It is not a result of a physical ailment of vision, but the fact the person was not paying attention-even though the stimulus was directly in front of them.
Causes of inattentional blindness include hyper-focusing on one particular thing (see: selective attention), and simultaneous multi-tasking, which can cause a “blindness” to what is happening in the world around you.
Inattentional Blindness Definition and Features
Here is the simplest yet most complete definition of intentional blindness we’ve found:
One of the most essential functions of our cognitive system, the ability to selectively prioritize certain sensations, sometimes leads us to inadvertently exclude other sensory information from awareness: We often miss an object right in front of our eyes if it occurs unexpectedly and our attention is otherwise engaged. This phenomenon has been labeled inattentional blindness, and it occurs in diverse and potentially critical situations (Kreitz et al., 2015)
A number of factors can be attributed to causing this phenomenon: the mental workload is at capacity (e.g. cognitive overload), multi-tasking, age, selective memory or visual cues, or a general lack of focus.
Ward & Scholl (2014) recognizes three vital elements about inattentive blindness:
- It is strong, even extreme: “What we fail to perceive is not a subtle detail of an event, or a change from one feature to another, but rather the entire event itself, no matter how salient (e.g., a bright red cross moving through a field of black and white shapes
- It is counterintuitive: “almost everyone is surprised that failures of awareness of this magnitude are even possible.”
- It has real-world consequences: “(e.g., causing traffic accidents, or errors in medical diagnosis)” (para. 2-3).
Origins of the Concept
Before theoretical experiments were conducted by psychologists, Arien Mack & Irvin Rock (1999) claimed that inattentional blindness was an “unrecognized and unstudied phenomenon“(p. 14).
In their seminal book, titled “Inattentional Blindness”, Mack & Rock question the nature human perception, analyze various stimuli in our environments and analyze how it affects our attention.
They suggest that “our attention merely permits us to see some things in more detail that others” (p. 1).
Inattentional Blindness Examples
- You are tricked by an illusion when you are watching a magician. While you are concentrating on one thing, your brain does not process the changes the magician is making elsewhere. This is also known as change blindness.
- You are intently watching a movie about the Roman empire, but you don’t notice the mistake in the background; there is an airplane in the sky.
- You buy a brand-new green car, and you selectively only seem to notice other green cars on the road while you are driving.
- You are talking on your phone and you don’t notice that two people dressed in bright clown suits walking in front of you.
- You are daydreaming of winning the lottery while taking a walk, you don’t notice a large hole in the sidewalk and fall into it.
- You work at a factory and listening to music while working on a dangerous machine; you get injured because you are not paying attention.
- While multitasking on your computer and your cell phone at the same time, you accidently knock over your coffee on your new shirt.
- You are driving in your car while looking at a map, you don’t notice the large deer in the road ahead of you.
- You are waiter at a restaurant taking an order, but you are thinking of food you want to eat at the same time; you accidently input the wrong order when communicating with the kitchen staff.
- You are changing the song on your car radio and don’t notice a red light; you run the red light and end up getting a ticket.
1. Watching a Magician
“You are tricked by an illusion when you are watching a magician. While you are concentrating on one thing, your brain does not process what is really happening.”
Researchers have suggested that studying magic tricks, and the way attention is diverted or misdirected, is beneficial to understanding inattentional blindness.
Eye tracking experiments, observing sleight of hand magic (e.g., a coin being placed under a napkin and disappearing), and other tests where eye movements have been measured, are able to detect at what moment a person’s attention was captured.
While magic tricks are created to divert our attention, it has opened up a specific research niche that gives insight into human attentiveness. Barnhart & Goldinger (2014) profess:
“There is an increasing awareness that magicians are informal cognitive scientists who continually test hypotheses outside of the sterile confines of the laboratory. The knowledge accrued through this informal experimentation can guide formal scientific theories as well as translate into fresh methodologies for studying phenomena in the lab. Thus far, the most fruitful collaborative effort between these disparate groups has been in the study of attention and inattentional blindness (IB), the tendency for people to miss salient pieces of the environment when engaged in an attention-demanding task. Magic provides an ecologically valid arena for studying IB both in well-controlled laboratory conditions and in conditions with more natural performance and viewing” (para 1-2)
2. Continuity Errors
“You are intently watching a movie about the Roman empire, but you don’t notice the mistake in the background; there is an airplane in the sky.”
Noticing something or not noticing something can be categorized as inattentional blindness. While watching a movie or television show, have you failed to notice a blooper, or something completely out of place?
It could be some kind of technology (e.g., smartphone or computer) present on screen in the wrong era, or an airplane in the sky of a movie set in Ancient Greece or Rome. The fact is, because we are so engrossed in what we are watching, we fail to notice these inconsistencies.
Wood & Simmons (2019) cite an experiment conducted by Cornell in 1959 in a movie theatre. They state:
“the experimenter dressed in a sheet and walked back and forth across the stage of a movie theatre while a trailer was playing before the film. The ‘ghost’ was visible for 50 seconds, and 32% of the theatre audience did not report seeing it. Of the 68% who did notice the ghost, just over half saw it in the first 5 seconds it was visible (inferred from the part of the ghost’s walk that they reported)” (p. 2).
Data was then generated to compare the rate at which people noticed the person dressed in the ghost costume.
3. Divided Attention and Multitasking
“You work at a factory and listening to music while working on a dangerous machine; you get injured because you are not paying attention.”
Have you ever been talking on the phone and trying to do another task at the same time, causing you to make a mistake?
While this is only one example of how multi-tasking can negatively impact your attention, this type of mistake is a common form of inattentive blindness, as shown in many shadowing experiments in psychology.
More often than not, a person is distracted by one thing that they are doing, and fail to the main task correctly – or worse- in some situations, injure themselves or others.
Grissinger (2012) emphasizes:
“In many cases, people involved in the errors have been labeled as careless and negligent. However, these types of accidents are common and can even be made by intelligent, vigilant, and attentive people” (para 6).
He adds that when we divide our attention, we increase our mental workload. The second task, or in some cases, simultaneous third task, we are doing takes vital concentration away from the main task. It can lead to embarrassing errors and accidents.
4. Mental Filtering
People who suffer from mental filtering (also known as negativity bias) tend to fall victim to intentional bias. For these people, they focus their attention on the negative and, as a consequence, don’t pay attention to the positives.
There are, clearly, many negative consequences of this. It leads to anxiety and depression, as well as low self-esteem and self-concept. In order to address this, people often need to go through a process of cognitive restructuring that involves actively focusing on the things we’re not paying attention to – the positives and the more balanced perspectives on a situation.
Barnhart, A. S., & Goldinger, S. D. (2014). Blinded by magic: eye-movements reveal the misdirection of attention. Frontiers in Psychology, 5. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01461
Grissinger, M. (2012). Inattentional blindness: what captures your attention? P & T : A Peer-Reviewed Journal for Formulary Management.
Kreitz, C., Schnuerch, R., Gibbons, H., & Memmert, D. (2015). Some See It, Some Don’t: Exploring the Relation between Inattentional Blindness and Personality Factors. PLOS ONE, 10(5), e0128158. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0128158
Mack, A., & Rock, I. (2000). Inattentional Blindness (1st ed.). MIT Press.
Ward, E. J., & Scholl, B. J. (2014). Inattentional blindness reflects limitations on perception, not memory: Evidence from repeated failures of awareness. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 22(3), 722–727. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13423-014-0745-8
Wood, K., & Simons, D. J. (2019). Now or never: noticing occurs early in sustained inattentional blindness. Royal Society Open Science, 6(11), 191333. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.191333