I was watching TV the other night, paying attention to a documentary on a subject that I don’t even really care about, when my wife stepped between me and the big screen. “Jonathan, Cheyenne’s been trying to get your attention… she’s called you twice.”
It turns out that my daughter had gone to her room, retrieved a craft that she had completed earlier in the day, brought it upstairs where I was watching TV, stood well within my line of site, said “Hey dad…” two times, and the truth is I didn’t hear her. I didn’t even see her. I was too absorbed in what I was watching.
I don’t want to believe this about me. I want to believe that anytime my wife or daughters want my attention, they have it… immediately. They are, after all, way more important than anything else I might be focusing on in the moment. But sometimes I fail to recognize what’s happening right in front of my own face.
How and why does something like that happen?
In 1999, psychology researchers Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris released a paper entitled “Gorillas in Our Midst” in which they detailed a simple yet elegant experiment they had designed and carried out. Now, this experiment is arguably the most famous psychological study ever performed.
Here’s how the experiment worked:
A group of students wearing white t-shirts were to pass a basketball back and forth, sometimes bounce-passing, and sometimes making arial passes. Meanwhile, another group wearing black t-shirts were also to pass a basketball back and forth between each other. White shirts pass to white shirts, black shirts pass to black shirts. The complicating factor is that both groups are occupying the same space, and the students are moving around the whole time, so it’s very difficult to follow the ball that belongs to one of the groups.
This was all video-taped, and later, people were asked to view the video and count the passes of one of the groups. I’ve tried this task, and it isn’t easy. There is so much movement and mixing of the two groups that keeping track of the ball can be kind of tough.
In the middle of the action, something odd happens. A woman wearing a full-body gorilla suit walks into the middle of the action, looks at the camera, thumps her chest, and then walks off. She was on camera for about nine seconds.
Here’s the amazing thing… about half of the people who watch the video for the first time do not see the gorilla at all. They’re so focused on the task of following the basketball that they completely miss this amazingly strange site. Later research using eye-tracking showed that some people look straight at the gorilla and still don’t “see” it.
Simons and Chabris have some great explanations for why sometimes things that should get our attention don’t. Two especially stand out to me as the reasons why I sometimes don’t pay attention to my family when I should.
First, I tend to allow myself to become laser-focused on other things, assuming that if something else needed my attention, I would see it or hear it. When I believe this, I fool myself. I don’t have that much attention at my disposal. The more focused I am, say, on watching TV, or writing an email, or solving a work problem, the less likely I am to notice other things, no matter how important.
Secondly, we don’t tend to see or hear things that we aren’t looking or listening for. This is why, when our daughters were newborns and cried in the middle of the night, Wendy heard them and woke up, and I didn’t. Mothers of newborns expect to hear their child cry, even when they are sleeping. It’s like their brain is “online” for that sound. Apparently, now, as a dad, I still haven’t trained my brain to be “online” to the sound of my daughters saying “Hey, Dad…”. This is something I need to fix post haste.
We don’t tend to see or hear things that we aren’t looking or listening for. Jonathan HooverClick to tweet
Here’s ultimately what the science of the Simons and Chabris experiment has taught me… I fool myself when I believe that I will naturally notice things that truly deserve my attention. Giving attention to what matters most requires effort on my part… it requires me to prioritize my life a little better, and develop more awareness. But it’s worth it. I want to start noticing the “invisible gorillas” in my life. How about you?