Inattentional blindness is when we are so focused on some things that we completely miss other things that should be completely obvious. This can be used to hilarious effect, as you’ll see below, and at the same time is something we need to take into account in business.

If you haven’t watched this video before then watch it now before reading on. There will be spoilers below.

Many people can’t even agree on how many balls were passed but that’s not the real lesson from the video.

The key is whether or not you saw the gorilla and about half the people won’t. Interestingly, even if you did see it on your first viewing, you may not see it in future viewings, if your attention is focused enough on the passing of the balls. I’ve had that happen myself - most of the time I see it but sometimes I didn’t and that’s even after knowing what was going to happen. It’s all a matter of where my focus is.

Then even if you did see the gorilla, did you notice the colour change? Both of these are examples of inattentional blindness.

Attention bias causes us to see what we expect to see, rather than what’s actually there.1 There is good reason for our brains to work in this way. The sensory data that we receive is incomplete and so our brain fabricates a significant amount of what we think we perceive around us. Our eyes in particular have multiple blind spots and yet we think we are seeing clearly without obstruction all the time. This is the magic of our brains fabricating information.

There are two important facts that the gorilla study highlights about our brains.2

  1. We can be blind to things that are obviously right in front of us.
  2. We can be blind to our blindness. We tend to be overconfident in believing that we can’t be fooled and that we will notice everything that we need to.

Interestingly, some more recent research3, identifies one exception to results of the gorilla study. It turns out that if the gorilla was moving fast enough then we do tend to notice it. Fast moving objects draw our attention, likely because they’re more of a survival risk.

Let’s look at another fun example — the hilarious “people swap” by Derren Brown. My favourite is still the very last one in the video.

Although rarely as amusing as the videos above, inattentional blindness happens all the time in a business setting. We get so focused on the new feature we developed that we didn’t notice where it didn’t solve the right problem or wasn’t working in some cases. We get all focused on the technical challenges that we miss the actual business objective that we’re trying to meet.

Two, or more, people working collaboratively are less likely to miss the obvious than one person alone. If three of us were watching the gorilla video together, it’s likely that at least one of us would have questioned “Why is there a gorilla there?” and drawn everyone’s attention to it.

Focusing on delivering small pieces and collecting feedback quickly, can help reduce the effect of this. It’s all too easy to miss the gorilla when we’re not getting feedback.

Inattentional blindness is a side-effect of our brain trying to optimize it’s own behaviour. There’s nothing we can do to stop it entirely but there are ways we can minimize the more negative effects.

  1. “Coaching the Brain: Practical Applications of Neuroscience to Coaching”, Joseph O’Connor, Andrea Lades 

  2. “Thinking Fast and Slow”, Daniel Kahneman. 

  3. The visible gorilla: Unexpected fast—not physically salient—Objects are noticeable, Pascal Wallisch, Wayne E. Mackey, Michael W. Karlovich, and David J. Heeger