How Selective Attention Keeps You Distracted

If you haven’t heard of selective attention (known in cognitive science as “inattentional blindness”), you’ll be fascinated, maybe even disturbed, by this cool research study.

Spoiler alert! Before you read any further, it’s more fun (and more instructive) to do the experiment on yourself. If you want a taste of what selective attention is, watch this video before reading any further:

So, did you see the gorilla? If you ever watch the video again, you won’t NOT be able to see that blasted gorilla. In fact, if you didn’t see it the first time, you’ll be flabbergasted that you didn’t see it before. But even if you did see the gorilla, would you believe that over 50% of all people that see the video don’t see the gorilla?

Why is this!? Researchers have found that when we are given a very specific task (like to count how many basketballs are passed to people wearing white shirts), our attention focuses so much on the task that we can’t see the big picture.

According to Scholarpedia, inattentional blindness is defined as “the failure to notice a fully-visible, but unexpected object because attention was engaged on another task, event, or object.”

Of course, there is real value to this so-called human skill. By focusing our attention, we have the ability to be more productive; we can zero in, cut out visual aural noise, and capture what is most important for our immediate task. Unfortunately, selective attention also often happens when we are stressed and it has damaging effects.

Consider the last time you took a test or you were given a task that required a great deal of concentration. Did you find yourself so focused on one thing that you couldn’t take a step back and look at the big picture? Suppose, for example, you suddenly notice that a bear is coming towards you. In fear of getting mauled, your attention might be so focused on making sure you don’t lose site of the bear’s movements that you don’t realize your vehicle (mode of escape) is close enough to get away.

Whether you like it or not, selective attention is brought upon by our expectations. If we are given a task, we expect to be focused 100% on that task with no distractions. If something jars us from our current state (like a bear), our attention is again diverted.

So what does this mean for visual communicators? We need to be conscious of what people are focused on. If we give them something specific to key in on, they may just not notice anything else. This can be good or bad, depending on your purpose. Just make sure you know if you want them to see the gorilla or not!