In this paper and their other work, Simons and Chabris have argued that people have an illusion of awareness. We believe that we are aware of the things that happen around us. Instead, we miss a lot. Things happen around us, and sometimes right in front of us, and we fail to become aware of the event. We believe we are aware and are doing fine because we are unaware of all the things we are missing, like fights and unicycling clowns and traffic signals. We are surprised when people point out the things we miss.
But our attention flits and wanders as never before. The consequences, outside the cockpit and the driver’s seat, are as yet unclear. In August, a burglar in West Virginia broke into a house and stole some diamonds, but before fleeing the scene he decided to check his Facebook page. He forgot to log off. The victim discovered it on her computer when she got home.
But the Utah study went further: Again analyzing only accurate pass counters, the gorilla was noticed by 67 percent of those with high working memory capacity but only by 36 percent of those with low working memory capacity.
In other words, "if you are on task and counting passes correctly, and you're good at paying attention, you are twice as likely to notice the gorilla compared with people who are not as good at paying attention," Watson says. "People who notice the gorilla are better able to focus their attention. They have a flexible focus in some sense."
The new study used a video made famous by earlier "inattention blindness" research featured in the 2010 book "The Invisible Gorilla," by Christopher Chabris, a psychologist at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., and Daniel Simons, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The video depicts six actors passing a basketball. Viewers are asked to count the number of passes. Many people are so intent on counting that they fail to see a person in a gorilla suit stroll across the scene, stop briefly to thump their chest, and then walk off.
Psychologists at the University of Utah found that those with lower working memory capacity are susceptible to "inattention blindness" or the inability to notice unexpected events while focusing on something else. Working memory capacity, according to the researchers, is the ability to focus attention when and where needed, and on more than one thing at a time. "Because people are different in how well they can focus their attention, this may influence whether you'll see something you're not expecting," said study author Janelle Seegmiller.
According to previous University of Utah research, only 2.5 percent of individuals can drive and talk on a cell phone without impairment. And Strayer has conducted studies showing that inattention blindness explains why motorists can fail to see something right in front of them - like a stop light turning green - because they are distracted by the conversation, and how motorists using cell phones impede traffic and increase their risk of traffic accidents.
We accept ridiculously short gaps between vehicles. And we overestimate our ability to stop because we don't appreciate how long it will take us to recognize unexpected hazards, even when we're looking right at them -- a mental phenomenon called inattention blindness.
We enter this state any time we switch our attention away from driving, essentially letting our autopilot take control. By the time we switch it off and take conscious control, we have usually run out of time to stop the catastrophic chain of events that starts with an exploding airbag and ends with lives lost and lives ruined.
They discovered that, while the drivers looked at objects around them - including road signs, other vehicles and traffic lights - as they drove, they could not remember seeing them if they were talking on the phone.
Professor Strayer said: 'There is a kind of a tunnel vision - you aren't processing the peripheral information as well. Even though your eyes are looking right at something, when you are on the cellphone, you are not as likely to see it. This is a variant of something called inattention blindness.'
One of the students dressed as a clown and unicycled around a central square on campus. About half the people walking in the square by themselves said they had seen the clown, and the number was slightly higher for people walking in pairs. But only 25 percent of people talking on a cell phone said they had, Hyman said.
He said the term commonly applied to such preoccupation is "inattention blindness," meaning a person can be looking at an object but fail to register it or process what it is.
Particularly fascinating, Hyman said, is that people walking in pairs were more than twice as likely to see the clown as were people talking on a cell phone, suggesting that the act of simply having a conversation is not the cause of inattention blindness.
It's quite common. It's a condition that nearly 98 percent of the population has. It's called Inattention Blindness and it's brought on by multitasking.