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The penalty for inattentional blindness can be incredibly high

One of the main points we constantly make during the Street Survival Seminar is to spend your attention wisely. We use Col. Cooper’s Color Code to accentuate the importance of “spending” your attention wisely. I know it sounds strange speaking of attention like a commodity, but it is. It is a commodity on which our very lives depend and, unfortunately, is in limited supply.

Self-evaluation is something none of us is very good at, but when it comes to our personal estimate of our ability to multi-task or deal with multiple variables under stress, we tend to overestimate. In fact, often we will watch an officer injured or killed in a tragic car camera video and think, “Well, there are the affects of complacency, or routine, or fatigue...” — or whatever — when what we have seen is simply the natural limitation of our ability to attend to more than one thing at a time.

Worse still is our tendency to not see what we aren’t looking for — whether or not it is important. We have been harping about the dangers of inattentional blindness for several years now and science keeps reinforcing these intense dangers. We often investigate the motorcycle wreck where the driver of a car turns in front of a motorcycle. Often the driver swears the bike just appeared; while the cyclist will swear the driver of the car did it intentionally since he looked right him before turning into his path!

The truth is just what many of you suspected during your investigation: the driver of the car was looking for cars, not motorcycles, so he didn’t see the bike.

Most brain theories say if we looked at something, some part of brain examined it at some level. The trouble is, new research says “nope.” What’s worse, thinking this may be deadly. The phenomena of inattentional blindness helps explain that talking on your cell phone is not the danger; it is “what” you are talking about that is. Intense conversation requires more of our limited attention and now we know it can injure and kill us if we don’t discipline our control of our focus.

I’ve read plenty of research on this, and must recommend to you an interesting and eye-opening read by psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. Eye-opening because they deal with issues pertinent to law enforcement and their book, The Invisible Gorilla, opens with a tragic law enforcement example of how limited our attention can be at exactly the wrong time.

Just as Blink  gave us a brilliant micro-understanding of the Amado Diallo shooting, The Invisible Gorilla  gives us a greater understanding of how our intuitions are often wrong and many sayings and homilies are designed to reframe us so we don’t get fooled. It’s fun when magicians use our predictable failings against us but it’s another thing when it is an assailant trying to distract us for a sucker punch!

What Doctors Chabris and Simons call the “illusion of attention” is an issue for us in very real terms. We often perform intricate skills under intense stress, and the zero-sum game of spending our attention makes it essential we focus on the right things.

Pilots spend a great deal of time “under the hood” learning how to properly scan instruments as they fly and we have to be our own trainers constantly scanning the relevant areas, the threat zones. Hands, feet, vehicles, movement, objects are always demanding our attention and rightfully so, we must make sure keep our attention on the things we are scanning.

Staying in “Condition Yellow,” — a broad external awareness — is essential on the street and looking isn’t enough. We have to “see” what we are looking at. Yes, that’s easier said than done, especially under stress.

When Buck Savage tells us to “watch the hands” it is a particularly sticky saying that holds true now more than ever. Routine is still one of our greatest enemies since the brain is constantly seeking patterns and encountering a lot of “yes people” sets up your brain to expect “yes” cues instead of “no” or threat cues. It is up to each of us to mentally rehearse the skills of attending to the right things under stress.

Finally, just for fun, go to www.theinvisiblegorilla.com and play the basketball pass counting game, see if you can count the passes the team in white make, but remember bounce passes count too! In coming weeks I will review some other dangers our intuition can create, but remember to do your homework: Watch videos of officer-involved incidents and mentally rehearse how you would handle each situation and what were the important “cues” to see, hear, smell, or feel in each incident, refreshing yourself in the attention skills your need and inoculating yourself against the corrosive affect of routine.

Each situation requires you to spend your attention wisely and only you can control where and how it is spent, it is a matter of life and death…yours.

The Invisible Gorilla: and Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us, by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons
Why We Make Mistakes, by Joseph T. Hallinan

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