This time it’s radiologists. In a study reported by NPR, 83% of radiologists failed to see the image of a gorilla on slides that they were reviewing for signs of cancer. The conclusion by reporter Alix Spiegel is:
… what we're thinking about — what we're focused on — filters the world around us so aggressively that it literally shapes what we see. So, [the researcher] says, we need to think carefully about the instructions we give to professional searchers like radiologists or people looking for terrorist activity, because what we tell them to look for will in part determine what they see and don't see.
This phenomenon of selective attention permeates our society. Drivers don’t see approaching bicycles and motorcycles. Police can’t always determine who’s the victim and who’s the perpetrator in a violent situation. Soldiers responding in a conflict don’t always see the innocent bystanders in their line of sight. Teachers don’t always notice when a student for whom there are low expectations suddenly does something extraordinary.
When I was a teenager, I along with others observed a socio-drama as part of a lesson in tolerance. In this theatrical event, a crime was committed. We were asked to say who committed the crime. To us it was obvious. When the action was repeated it wasn’t so obvious and we learned about how our prejudices and perceptions influence our judgment, especially in quickly evolving situations.
And I wonder about leaders of large, complex organizations. Do they sometimes display "selective attention"? Do they look at but not see the signs of a failing business model? Do they look at but not see the signs of a recessionary economy? Do they look at but not see managers who are not doing their jobs effectively? Do they look at but not see customers who are dissatisfied and looking elsewhere. Maybe it’s denial, but it also might be an inability to see something that is unexpected.