It is common knowledge that we all have a limited capacity or ability to pay attention.  After all, we cannot notice everything in our surroundings nor even notice every particular feature of any given object.  A classic example of missing something in your surroundings, and something we perhaps have all been guilty of at one time or another, is not seeing a waving friend as you scan the movie theater for a place to sit. Your puzzled friend, upon meeting you the next time, may dejectedly say “Hey, I waved to you at the movie theater, and even shouted your name, but you still didn’t notice me”. Similarly when viewing an object, let’s say an orange, attentional resources may be on the shape, in this case the roundness of the orange, or the color of the orange, and perhaps even the texture and thin wrinkles of the orange (and here we are only dealing with the visual sense!).  But it is unlikely that you process all available information simultaneously, rather at separate moments of time bring awareness to each part. Furthermore, there are countless degrees of each feature that may or may not go unnoticed (i.e. shape (slight oblong-ness or indentations); color (specs of green, white, and brown), textures (a missed scratch), etc.). 

    This lack of attention appears to be a part of our modality systems (i.e. sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell) and perhaps even a primary intrinsic trait of consciousness itself.  This limited cognizant ability was looked into via a series of experiments dealing with what is called inattentional blindness, where we miss objects and change blindness, where we miss changes to objects and scenes.  The poster boy (poster simian?) of these attentional studies is none other than our distant cousin, the gorilla. 

Watch the video here

    In a humorous (and oft frustrating if you’re tricked like I was) task experiment, observers were asked to watch a video of six young adults (three wearing white shirts and three wearing black shirts) passing a basketball  around and were instructed to count how many times the ball was passed. At the end of the task, participants were asked how many passes were there total (along with bounces in a harder task), and then were asked if they saw the gorilla. Wait, what gorilla?! In fact, during the visual task, a person in a gorilla suit walks in the middle of the circle of basketball-passing people and then walks out).   About half of all participants miss the ape-suited passerby (D.J. Simons. & C.F. Chabris 1999). 

   They showed two versions, one where the white shirt members were passing the ball, and another where the black shirt members passed the ball.  Interestingly, and perhaps also counter-intuitively, the gorilla was noticed more when attending to the black shirt team passing the ball than the white team.  In the study’s results, it infers from this finding that

“….observers are more likely to notice an unexpected event that shares basic visual features – in this case color-with the events they are attending to. In a sense, this effect is the opposite of the traditional ‘pop-out’ phenomenon in visual search tasks, which occurs when an item that differs in basic visual features from the rest of the display is easier to notice and identify.”(D.J. Simons. & C.F. Chabris 1999, page 1069).

    However it is here, and the above quote’s line of reasoning I find particular odd.  They say the ‘pop-out’ phenomenon is not in play here; but they did the same experiment with a woman walking in the middle of the basketball passing group holding an open umbrella, in which larger portion noticed (65%). So why did more observers spot the umbrella wielding woman more than the chest pounding ape, where in the case of the gorilla among the White team the gorilla was more frequently missed?

My guess is as follows. In the case of the black gorilla among the Black team, he was spotted more because the participants directed attention was towards the black shirted members.  So any anomaly among a group of members that observers are attending to would be spotted more easily.  Were the gorilla to be white and observers attending the Black team, this ‘oddball’ phenomenon would not occur, and the gorilla probably as unnoticeable as the black. Whereas in the case of the open umbrella, the observers can more readily spot something conspicuous among basketball passing members, especially since the umbrella’s relative location is above everyone’s head, thus supporting the ‘pop-out’ theory.  If something that would normally stand out blends in via visual feature with the objects being attended to, it becomes more salient, but if…

   But the fact of the matter is, despite any shared visual features, we often miss a great deal of things when attending to something. That’s probably where the phrase “pay attention” stems from.  For sure,we have to pay with our cognizant resources, focusing on various features and recording them to short-term memory, which takes a toll on the brain, uses energy, and takes away attention from other things. 

Without a doubt we are all inattentionally blind every moment of every day.  We only have the capacity to attend to one, perhaps two (in vision: via peripheral ), things at once. And whats more is that our predilections for attention aren’t all the same either.  

Attention: is Culturally Dependent?

There have been studies comparing the way Asians and Westerners think, and it turns out that there are some major differences, one of these being attentional tendencies.  As can be seen in both Eastern and Western philosophies, and realized in social interactions of the respective societies, Asians tend to be more group-oriented whereas Westerners tend to have more individualistic tendencies. Of course, this is an overarching stereotype that in reality has a myriad of degrees depending on the country, location in that country, and personal inclinations.  But despite the generalizations, there have been notable differences found in task experiments, one concerning an equal number of Americans and Japanese. Both groups were shown short animated videos of an underwater scene and then later asked what they say.  The results are as follows:

 “Americans referred mainly to features of focal fish (large, foregrounded, rapidly moving, brightly colored), whereas Japanese referred more to context and to relationships between focal objects and context (background objects and location of objects in relation to one another)”( Nisbett, Richard E.) 

Even more striking was the first sentence used by Japanese “I saw a pond” versus American’s “There was a big fish, maybe a trout…”(Nisbett, Richard E.)

Other tests were done as well, showing quite varying degrees of attention to a scene.  In one, Japanese and Americans were shown two scenes in which participants had to spot out the anomaly from the second picture, or what had changed.  And as it turns out, Japanese were much better able to notice the differences to the background, while Americans quickly caught differences to the foreground. 

These experiments (and more) show just how attention is not only cultural, but we can surmise that attention comes down to the individual level as well.  With the world as large and complex as it is, there are some natural constraints (physical modalities) as well as cultural constraints (language, society, era, etc. ) that help us steer our attention towards specific things at any given moment.  This means that, surely to no one’s big surprise, everyone experiences the world differently and that we are all inattentional blind.  The concept of attention has many interesting features, especially when it comes to ways in which attention can be steered by others (i.e. any form of media or discourse).  It seems like recognizing and knowing the ways in which attention can be manipulated can be a valuable tool and something worth exploring further. 

Also, some guys made a newer version called ‘selective attention task 2.0’.  It’s a fun rendition for sure. 😉

 D.J. Simons. & C.F. Chabris (1999). “Gorillas in Our Midst”
Richard Nisbett, The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently … and Why New York: Free Press, 2003, ISBN 978-0-7432-1646-3