Seeing Without Seeing: The Perplexing Reality of Inattentional Blindness
This is a post about a neurocognitive bias that I regularly fall prey to but don’t fully understand how to remedy. There are different labels for it, but I think it’ll be more useful for me to just describe it. In any case, one example of what I’m talking about happens when I am filling out a payment form online for a storage space I have. The payment form has all the usual lines — address, credit card number, credit card expiration date and security code. But it also has one unusual, and unexpected line, namely a line (technically, a drop-down menu) for “Country.”
Now, I have no idea why this line is there. After all, if you know I live in Connecticut, and you have my zip code, don’t you therefore automatically know that I live in the United States? But regardless, it is there, and if you hit “Enter” without selecting a country from the drop-down menu, you will be sent back to the same screen to do so. And that’s the interesting thing: I’d guess that 5 of the last 6 times I’ve filled out that form (which I do once a month), I’ve failed to select a country from the drop-down menu. The word “Country” is there. It even has an asterisk next to it to let me know that it has to be filled out. And yet somehow I keep failing to see it.
Similarly (at least it feels similar), a couple of weeks ago I was teaching a seminar and just before class started, I looked around the room to see if everyone was there and then said, “I guess X is late today,” at which point X, who was in fact there, raised his hand and said, “No, I’m here.” He wasn’t just in the room — he was sitting just a few seats away from me, and as I had scanned the room, I had undoubtedly seen him. But he was sitting in a different seat than he normally sat in, and as a result my mind just did not process that he was there.
This doesn’t seem like an unfamiliar problem — the most common version of it is the person who goes to the refrigerator looking for something and doesn’t see what’s right in front of him because it’s not in the place where he expects it to be. But it is, at least to me, a quite mysterious one.