Monkey Business: Inattentive Blindness in the Workplace


Yes, but did you see the gorilla?

In a recent article in the Smithsonian magazine, Daniel Simon discusses the phenomena of inattentive blindness and our limited ability to perceive everything that is going on around us.

In a video test, viewers were asked to count how many times a ball was passed between people wearing white shirts. While the viewers focused on the white shirts and the movement of the ball, a gorilla (a person in costume) walked right through the crowd of people.

See for yourself: Click Here

Strangely enough, almost half of the people tested never saw the gorilla. This led the author to ask: “How could they miss something right before their eyes? This form of invisibility depends not on the limits of the eye, but on the limits of the mind. We consciously see only a small subset of our visual world, and when our attention is focused on one thing, we fail to notice other, unexpected things around us — including those we might want to see.”

This inattentive blindness really comes into play within the workplace. Imagine the miscommunications, misunderstandings, and general confusion that result from the distractions and “multi-tasking” that prevail in most work environments. Most of us are unaware of limits of our attention. In fact, I think most of us think we can mentally handle a lot more information, issues, and concerns than our brain will actually allow.

To compensate, the brain will actually “blind” itself to some activities, so that it can focus on what it deems to be of greater importance or priority. This means that if we are not consciously focusing on the job at hand, our brain will pick out its own activity to target, shutting out the rest of the activities as distractions. This is where we could get into trouble — when our instincts take over and unconsciously prioritize information for us.

I guess this means that the onus is on us to consciously decide what activities we need to focus on. Of course that means we will knowingly (and unknowingly) being shutting out other information.

The key is to determine what is important to us and focus on that. It’s OK to miss the gorilla, if we all agree that it’s not that important.

Just make sure the gorilla knows that going in.