What can a gorilla teach law enforcers?
Before reading this article, watch the video below. Let me encourage you to not read below the video — it will test your perception skills and you don’t want to discover the answer prior to watching the video. Trust me. Watch first, read after.
So, what did you think?
Studies have shown that approximately half of you that watched the video did not see what probably seems obvious to you now. I’ve been showing a similar video in various seminars across the country for some time and I have personally observed that 50 percent rate to be true.
I once thought that there was a “trick” with the video and maybe the color of the gorilla caused it to blend in but studies were also conducted with a bright red gorilla and the results were similar. It also has nothing to do with where the students are looking. By utilizing “eye tracker” technology it was discovered that whether someone saw the gorilla or not, they still looked right at it for well over one second. Individuals actually were looking at the gorilla but clearly many did not see it. Even fewer noticed the curtain change (11 percent) and change of players (16 percent).
The video you watched is an updated video to the original experiment conducted in 1999 by Harvard Professor Daniel Simmons and then Graduate Student Christopher Chabris. From a moon-walking bear commercial to highlight bicyclist safety to television shows such as “The Mentalist” using a similar video in a show promotion, the results are always the same. A significant number of people who watch the video look right at something and never see it.
You may have wondered how your favorite quarterback threw a ball right into the waiting hands of a defender or how do doctors miss obvious evidence on an x-ray.
We can get more job-specific: how does an officer drive into another officer while in foot pursuit or hit another police car in an intersection? Why didn’t the citizen get out of your way when you are driving with lights flashing or how come you missed the weapon in plain sight when you looked in a suspect’s car and seemingly looked right at it?
You may have wondered for years how some of these things happened and while there are no doubt a myriad of reasons, I believe that much of the cause is due to what is referred to as “inattentional blindness.”
What Is Inattentional Blindness?
Inattentional blindness is the failure to notice a visible, but unexpected object because one’s attention was engaged on another task, event, or object.
Now Dr. Christopher Chabris is a phsychology professor at Union College in New York and Dr. Daniel Simons is a professor at the University of Illinois. Their 1999 gorilla experiment inspired the 2010 book called The Invisible Gorilla www.theinvisiblegorilla.com. It is one of the most intriguing books I have read in some time and it got me thinking how this applies to law enforcement and specifically emergency vehicle operations.
Study after study proves that we notice much less of our visual world than we think we do. We can look right at something but never see it and when you combine that with high speeds, darkness and a host of other drivers with the same phenomenon occurring, does it not make sense that problems could arise?
Looking Is Not Seeing
Unfortunately, the cause of inattentional blindness has a lot to do with what we cannot initially control. Unexpected objects will not be noticed and from the time we can remember, we have been programmed to notice some things more than others and this is especially true in driving. You may expect to see motorcycles if you live in Sturgis but most of us do not expect to encounter motorcycles on a regular basis. If you talk to anyone that rides, they will quickly tell you of the latest “scare” they had when a driver seemingly looked right at them but then proceeded to almost hit them. The action is usually not some intentional violent act to hurt motorcyclists. It is more likely the fact that for the last few days the driver has driven that route and never once seen a motorcycle. Consequently, they were not expecting it, and therefore they were blind to what they were looking at.
Even more troubling is the fact that there is considerable data to suggest that drivers are not only not noticing critical objects that place them and others in danger but that they do not even know this deficiency exists. They don’t see it so they do not know there is a problem. Have you ever bought a new car and all of a sudden you notice the same car everywhere? The cars were always there. You just weren’t looking for them before you got your own and that leads us to what we can do to mitigate the problem with inattentional blindness.
When we expect to see something, we see it. When we don’t expect something we may look right at it and never see it. It is the same reason you can look at the gorilla video again and you will see the gorilla every time even though you may have not seen it the first time you watched it. It’s the same reason a magician can show you an illusion over and over again and until you know where to look, you will never see the “trick.”
Know Your Limitations
Overconfidence is a dangerous attitude that all of us must be on guard about. If we are confident that we will see everything, we are likely to do things that will affect our attention even worse. Those activities include cell phone use, texting and computer usage. The research clearly tells us that we can have our complete attention on the roadway and still miss very important items. Any type of multi-tasking will increase the dangers exponentially.
In an interview with Seed Magazine, Dr. Simons addresses said, “That’s the intuition that’s interesting, and that’s the one that’s dangerous. If we were completely aware of these limits on attention, we wouldn’t do things like talking on cell phone while driving: We would know that it would make us just that much less likely to notice something. But we don’t have that insight into our own awareness. It’s only in that rare case where you actually have an accident that you become aware that you’ve missed something.”
Expect the Unexpected
The problem with expecting the unexpected is that something has to give. You can’t expect the unexpected at all times and still give all of your attention to everything. Our attention resources are limited and any attention we pay to the unexpected will take away from the attention that we have in our primary tasks.
Driving and just about anything else we do will draw on the already limited awareness that our brain has. The more our brain does, the worse it will do each task. Our awareness is limited and the recent data showing similar dangers with hands-free devices shows us just that.
Value of Partners
The walk across the street was seemingly like any other walk with the exception of the clown riding a unicycle. The clown on the unicycle was the invisible gorilla for the pedestrians. It was an unexpected event.
The study reiterates the dangers that inattentional blindness can cause. Just 25 percent of people using their phones noticed the clown, while 61 percent noticed the clown while listening to music. However, that was not the most surprising statistic. The highest percentage that noticed the clown were those walking with other pedestrians — a full 71 percent of the pedestrians that were walking with other pedestrians observed the creepy clown on a unicycle.
This is the same reason more than one person is supposed to clear your weapon at the range, or why doctors will have other doctors look at an X-ray, or why it’s a good idea to search a suspect twice using multiple officers. It may also be why having a partner with you in the passenger seat may be safer in regards to driving.
We must teach others to expect the unexpected and to limit the decisions that amplify inattentional blindness. If we know that unexpected things can occur in neighborhoods or intersections then we must slow in those areas to compensate for what we may not see. If we are aware that multi-tasking takes away from the resources we need to pay attention than we must pick and choose the times we are forced to multi-task very carefully.
Driving a police car will never be a vanilla experience and as safe as your family sedan. Officers must answer the radio, search alleys and find addresses, which all will take away from the resources that are needed to keep them safe but if we embrace and understand the dangers of inattentional blindness, we can add another tool to our arsenal for officer safety.
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