Tunnel vision: studies show that there's plenty we don't see

Studies show how little we actually seeGustave Flaubert once wisely observed, “There is no truth. There is only perception.”

Dispute resolution professionals know only too well how much perception contributes to conflict. We see what we want to see and tune out the rest, or become so focused that we lose sight of what lies in our peripheral vision. Our senses can mislead or fool us, while our assumptions lead us to see what was never there at all or blind us to what is right before our eyes.

Over the years numerous studies have been done of perception and its implications for human behavior and cognition. For example, recent studies demonstrate that we have a propensity to see only the good in outcomes.

One of my favorite studies, hands down, is this one described here in this article from the Daily Telegraph, which reveals just how much we utterly fail to see. Researchers showed subjects a video of two teams of people playing basketball, one in white shirts and the other in black, and instructed the subjects to count the number of times the team wearing white t-shirts bounces the ball. A person in a gorilla costume walks through the players, stops in front of the camera to thump its chest, and then walks off.

Incredibly, half of all subjects failed to see the gorilla, so intent were they on following the movement of the ball.

(Incidentally, I recently worked with a colleague who showed this video to a class she and I were teaching together. In a group of about 60 people, only 20 of them saw the gorilla. When we went back and replayed the video to prove to them that the gorilla in fact was there, no one could believe their eyes.)

To test your own powers of observation, visit this link for a whole range of video demonstrations. Or, to see the gorilla yourself, click here. (The gorilla video takes time to load, so you may not want to attempt this with a dial-up connection.)

Trainers and educators can order online “Surprising Studies of Visual Awareness“, a DVD that collects the videos used in this study.

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