Concept of the Day: Inattentional Blindness – Is seeing believing?

What you see and what I see may be completely different, which might be caused by Inattentional Blindness.

Picture this: a teen-ager, cruising down a familiar highway, keeping a conscientious eye on the speedometer, the rear view mirror, the oncoming traffic. Too late, he notices a deer standing in the road. He slams on the brakes but can’t avoid striking the animal.

Later, the teen insists to his skeptical parents that his eyes were on the road–he was paying attention to his driving. He just never saw the deer.

Why are the boy’s parents skeptical? Because intuitively, people believe that as long as our eyes are open, we are seeing. Even as we recognize that the brain does a lot of processing behind the scenes, we expect that at least salient objects–a large animal in our path, for example–will capture our attention.

Sights unseen – American Psychology Association

It seems obvious that the teenager should see the deer, but he didn’t, and it’s not because he wasn’t giving the road the attention he should have. They were looking but they didn’t see.

This isn’t a teenage issue though, we all do it. We all miss what is in plain sight.

The article linked above will give you more details on the theories about why this is, but it’s sufficient for this post to highlight that there is a discrepancy between what is there and what we see, and that the discrepancy has something to do with what we expect to see. The poor teenager probably didn’t see the deer because he wasn’t expecting to see a deer, his limited driving experience hadn’t equipped him with that expectation.

That’s a really interesting thought for all of us who need to communicate – which is all of us. What are people expecting to see in what we are communicating and will they see the things they aren’t expecting to see.

Likewise, for those of us being communicated to – which is all of us – what is it that we are missing because we didn’t expect it to be there.

I don’t have any answers (again) all I wanted to do was highlight a situation that we may not be aware of.

There are numerous examples of Inattentional Blindness on YouTube, this is the most famous:

This first one was such an internet sensation that now everyone knows what they are expecting to see (did you see it?) Knowing this the creators of the original fashioned a sequel:

This sequel has also been quite popular, so perhaps you were even expecting to see the differences in this one.

Daniel Simmons TEDx talk on the subject is also worth watching as is his article in the Smithsonian Magazine where he highlights a criminal case where this phenomena may have created a miscarriage of justice.

Cognitive Bias: Planning Fallacy

In the list of cognitive biases that I highlighted last week one that intrigued me was Planning Fallacy Bias.

I suspect that anyone who has been involved in any form of project has seen this at work. You look at the project, build a plan, come to a view of how long it’s going to take. You’ve done this type of activity before and should know how long it takes. Within days, though, it’s clear that the plan is not going to work and that time is not on your side, any contingency in the plan looks like a necessity and help from a time-lord would be welcome. You’ve just been caught in the Planning Fallacy.

The same also applies for cost estimates and our ability to estimate the benefits of a project. The project management triangle tells us that we can choose two between cost, scope and schedule; but the reality is that we often get all three wrong.

Individuals and organisations get caught out in the most spectacular fashion, but it would be too easy to attribute ever project overrun to this one bias – remember there are over 160 biases to choose from.

I’ve been caught in this one so many times that I now have a rule: whatever I plan the duration to be I double it; even then I still get caught out.

Do you have an approach for overcoming this bias?

Here’s Daniel Kahneman who was one of the people who came up with the idea:


Cognitive Biases: I'm not that biased?

Do you think you have a biases towards certain things and away from others?

I’ve been thinking a bit recently about confirmation bias, how to recognise it and how to overcome it. One of the joys of the internet is that you can always find someone to agree with you, just because they agree doesn’t make either of you right.

This week someone pointed out a scary list of over 160 different cognitive biases on Wikipedia! As with any classification process I’m sure that the list isn’t perfect but however you look at it that’s a lot of biases.

It’s interesting to think that some people will already have stopped reading because of a bias blind spot. Perhaps some of you are experiencing an empathy gap in your emotional reaction to this post.

It may be that my use of English is challenging your functional fixedness (I’m sure I’ve used some punctuation incorrectly somewhere in this post).

I’ve regularly been in situations where the curse of knowledge has made it difficult for me and another person to communicate at a level we both understood. I’m certain that I’ve been caught in the Dunning-Kruger effect but hopefully not too often. (The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias wherein unskilled people mistakenly assess their ability to be much higher than is accurate.) How would I know if I had though?

It’s good to know that the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon is a real thing. In my case this is particularly true for names, I can sometimes remember the first name or the surname, but rarely both.

When travelling to somewhere I’ve been to a lot I sometimes play the game of putting the satnav on just to see whether it knows better than me – who knew I was challenging my well travelled road effect.

Finally I wanted to mention the Zeigarnik effect partly because it’s such a great name but also just because I…

Concept of the Day: Mere-Exposure Effect – You like it just because you've seen it?

Heineken reportedly paid $45m to have their product appear in the James Bond movie, Skyfall.

Another James Bond movie, The World is Not Enough, reportedly earned over $100m in product placement fees alone.

As you read the word Intel do you hear something else alongside it?

What about those words on that football shirt, positive or negative towards the organisation they represent?

Ever wondered why businesses are willing to pay so much to have their product appear in people’s consciousness?

One of the explanations is the mere-exposure effect.

The mere-exposure effect is a psychological phenomenon by which people tend to develop a preference for things merely because they are familiar with them.


There are some really subtle experiments behind this one. Back in 1968 Robert Zajonc conducted a set of experiments including one where  people were shown pictures of faces – some were given high levels of exposure, others with less exposure. They were then asked to rate the faces positively or negatively. The ones who received more exposure to a face rated it more positively. These people didn’t know anything more about the face other than that they were familiar with them.

In another experiment Charles Goetzinger had a new student bring a black bag into a classroom. Although nothing about the bag changed, people’s attitudes to it changed positively as they became more familiar with it. The only thing that changed was the number of times they had seen it.

Imagine how many screen advert you see a day. Mere-exposure effect says that, even though you don’t look at them, or interact with them, they are still having an effect on your attitude towards the product or service being advertised.

Consider the effects of the mere-exposure effect alongside confirmation bias and you have two effect which when working together explain a lot about the ways in which we make decisions.

Concept of the Day: Impostor Syndrome

Have you ever got to the end of an activity having achieved all that you wanted to only to feel like a fraud or an imposter? I have.

That feeling could be the result of Impostor Syndrome.

The impostor syndrome sometimes called impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome, is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.


Impostor syndrome is supposed to be particularity evident among high achievers, but I wouldn’t know about that. It was though to be more prevalent in women, but research would suggest that both men and women struggle. There does appear to be a difference in the way that men and women respond to the feelings which, I suspect, means that the impact of Impostor Syndrome is higher for women than for men. Some reports of studies state that 70% of people experience these feelings at one time or another, I’ve not been able to confirm those studies exist but the numbers sound plausible.

It’s not regarded as a mental disorder, more as a learnt reaction to certain situations. A number of techniques exist for taming Imposter Syndrome most of these are common psychology techniques such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and Writing Therapy, but simpler techniques such as keeping a gratitude lists and reading reminders of success.

Concept of the Day: Loss Aversion

Loss aversion is the tendency of people to strongly prefer the avoidance of losses than the acquisition of gains.

In other words our psychological reaction to the loss of a £10 note is greater than our response to finding a £10 note.

There are all sorts of experiments to show this; the coffee mug experiment is one of the most famous. In this experiment every other student in a lecture theatre were given university mugs. The students without the mugs were asked how much they would be willing to give to get a mug. The students with a mug were asked how much it would cost for them to give up the mug. The students being asked to give up their mugs consistently valued the mugs as higher than those without a mug already.

A variance on this is to have three groups of people – one group given something like the coffee mug above, the second group given something of similar value but completely different like a bar of chocolate, the third group given the choice. After a period the groups are asked if they would like to swap for the other item. In all cases the number of people wanting to change is less than 10%. If you are given something and then asked to swap the likelihood of you keep it is 90%, if you have a choice between these same items the likelihood of you choosing one item is roughly 50%. Without prior ownership the value of the two items is perceived to be similar, with prior ownership the value’s item goes up significantly.

There are all sorts of situations where you can see this at work.

Anyone who has ever been involved in an office move will realise how difficult it is to get people to change where there is little perceived benefit to the move. People will use all sorts of guerilla tactics to stay where they are.

People, like myself, involved in technology changes will know how difficult it is to get people to see the benefit in new technology especially if they perceive that they are losing something at the same time. Microsoft dramatically underestimated the impact of loss aversion when they decided to get rid of the start button in Windows 8. It didn’t matter how much value Windows 8 could have given people they were losing something and that is what all the commentary focussed on.

Think about all of those piles of paper that you have in your house and ask yourself why you haven’t thrown them out? Loss aversion is a significant part of that, the fear of losing something important is greater than the benefit of having a tidy house.

In an earlier post I talked about the Council of No, one of the reasons that we create these organisations is loss aversion. We spend much more time trying to mitigate the risk of losing things than we do on the value of gaining things. It’s also one of the reasons that we create numerous checklists.

Loss aversion isn’t something that we can get rid of, but it is something that we should try to recognise and work around.

Concept of the Day: Learned Helplessness

While discussing some work related issues the other day a colleague used the phrase:
Castle Stalker

Cultural change isn’t easy – especially when we’re operating in an environment where learned helplessness appears to be prevalent

He pointed to this link on Wikipedia.

That got me thinking: What is learned helplessness? Is it really prevalent in the context that we were talking about?

The first question took me on a journey of discovery, this is what I found:

First, a definition from the Wikipedia article:

Learned helplessness is the condition of a human or animal that has learned to behave helplessly, failing to respond even though there are opportunities for it to help itself by avoiding unpleasant circumstances or by gaining positive rewards

To bring it closer to our normal experience, it’s the choice not to respond when we see the opportunity to do something for a third, or forth time having failed on all previous attempts. Or the choice to avoid something because of a previous traumatic experience even though that thing might be very good for us.

Thinking about my life, I know that there are certain things that I don’t do because of previous poor experiences. Some of these experiences happened a long time ago and I’m a different person now, but I still haven’t returned to give it another go.

So from purely personal experience it would appear that learned helplessness is a real phenomenon, and there also appear to be quite a lot of evidential support for it too. The Wikipedia article is quite well referenced including 42 different items and there are numerous articles on reputable sites across the Internet.

Like all concepts and many theories though it isn’t a 100% cause-and-effect explanation, the initial experiment that was undertaken by Martin E.P. Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania on a number of dogs only resulted in learned helplessness in two-thirds of the animals involved. Some animals and some people respond in a different way. He also went on to link learned helplessness with clinical depression and other related mental illnesses.

The opposite of helplessness is, apparently, optimism, which Seligman later researched and wrote about, coining the phrase learned optimism. This involved the challenging of negative self-talk and numerous other positive psychology techniques. Seligman is still around and talking about a new era of positive psychology, but that’s a set of thoughts for another day.

Here’s my conclusion. Some people, in some situations, will behave with learned helplessness and that has serious consequences. We need to think very seriously about the situations that we create that induce helpless feelings. We also need to think seriously about the tools that we give people to help them respond to these helplessness situations as they inevitably occur.

I’m not going to answer the second question because that would need me to talk too much about the context. It is suffice to say that my colleague’s insight was quite revealing.

A couple of really interesting videos about Learned Helplessness to finish with:

Can We Induce Learned Helplessness?

Description of Learned Helplessness