November 15, 2017 Gorillas and Priuses

In his book “The Happiness Advantage” Shawn Achor talks about our minds ability to focus and block out information.  It is amazing how we can see things when we are focused on them and totally miss them when we are focused on something else.  So if we go around looking for the negatives all the time eventually we will not be able to see the positives.  Read this from Shawn’s book and you will see what I mean.

“In one of psychology’s best known experiments, volunteers watch a video of two basketball teams—one wearing white shirts, the other black ones—who are passing around a basketball.7 As they watch, the viewers have to count the number of times the white team passes the ball. About 25 seconds into the video, a person in a full-body gorilla costume walks straight through the action, traveling from right to left across the screen for a full 5 seconds, as the team members continue to pass the ball. Afterward, the viewers are asked to write down the number of passes they counted and then answer a series of additional questions that go something like this: Did you notice anything unusual about the video? Did you see anyone in the video besides the six basketball players? Did you, um, notice the giant gorilla?

Unbelievably, when psychologists tried this out on more than 200 people (back in the days before it became a viral YouTube video everyone had seen), nearly half of them —46 percent—completely missed the gorilla. After the experiment, when the researchers told them about the gorilla, many of them refused to believe they had missed something so obvious and demanded to view the video again. On this second viewing, now that they were looking for the gorilla, it was, of course, impossible to miss. So why did so many of them fail to see it the first time? Because they were so focused on counting passes, their neural filters had simply dumped the gorilla sighting right into their spam folder.

This experiment highlights what psychologists call “inattentional blindness,” our frequent inability to see what is often right in front of us if we’re not focusing directly on it. This aspect of human biology means that we can miss an astoundingly large number of things that might be considered “obvious.” For instance, studies show that when people look away from a researcher for 30 seconds and then turn their attention back, many won’t notice that the researcher is suddenly wearing a different color shirt. Other experiments have found that when pedestrians are stopped on the street and asked a question, a large number won’t even notice if the person asking the question has quickly swapped places with someone else, so that they’re now talking to a different person entirely.8 In essence, we tend to miss what we’re not looking for.

This selective perception is also why when we are looking for something, we see it everywhere. You’ve probably experienced this a million times. You hear a song once, and suddenly it seems it’s always on the radio. You buy a new style of sneaker, and soon everyone at the gym is wearing the exact same pair. I remember the day I decided to buy a Toyota Prius, the streets suddenly began to overflow with them—every fourth car seemed to be a blue Prius (exactly the color I wanted to buy). Had the people in my town just that day decided to all go out and buy blue Priuses? Had the advertisers found out I was wavering and strategically inundated my environment with their product to seal my decision? Of course not. Nothing had changed but my focus.

Try this little experiment. Close your eyes and think of the color red. Really picture it in your mind’s eye. Now open your eyes and look around your room. Is red popping out at you everywhere? Assuming elves didn’t repaint your furniture while your eyes were closed, your heightened perception is due only to your change in focus. Repeated studies have shown that two people can view the same situation and actually see different things, depending on what they are expecting to see. It’s not just that they come away with different interpretations of the same event, but that they have actually seen different things in their visual field.9 For example, one study found that two people can look at the same picture of a friend and see two completely different expressions on that friend’s face.10 This not only affects our social relationships; if we are programmed to always read people negatively, it can hurt us at work, as well. Think of the consequences of reading a potential customer’s expression as disinterest, when really it’s satisfaction. Or reading a colleague’s attitude as arrogance, when really it’s helpfulness.

This is essentially what was going on with the two employees I overheard outside in Australia. Both aspects of the weather were there for them to experience in equal parts —the sunshine and the heat. The first man found the sunshine impossible to miss. The second man wasn’t trying to be a curmudgeon—the unbearable heat was simply the only thing he could see. While there are always different ways to see something, not all ways of seeing are created equal.

As we know from people stuck in a Negative Tetris Effect, the consequences can be debilitating to both our happiness and our work performance. On the other hand, imagine a way of seeing that constantly picked up on the positives in every situation. That’s the goal of a Positive Tetris Effect: Instead of creating a cognitive pattern that looks for negatives and blocks success, it trains our brains to scan the world for the opportunities and ideas that allow our success rate to grow.”

Now that you have read this I bet you are thinking of a situation when this has been true in your life.  If you have children you see it more and more with smartphones and all of the entertainment options they have around.  Now that you are aware the choice is yours how to change your focus.  As they said at the end of the G.I. Joe cartoons, “now you know, and knowing is half the battle.”

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