Out of Mind, Out of Sight: Unexpected Scene Elements Frequently Go Unnoticed Until Primed

BY: George M. Slavich (1) and Philip G. Zimbardo (2)
(1) University of California, Los Angeles
(2) Stanford University


The human visual system employs a sophisticated set of strategies for scanning the environment and directing attention to stimuli that can be expected given the context and a person’s past experience. Although these strategies enable us to navigate a very complex physical and social environment, they can also cause highly salient, but unexpected stimuli to go completely unnoticed. To examine the generality of this phenomenon, we conducted eight studies that included 15 different experimental conditions and 1,577 participants in all. These studies revealed that a large majority of participants do not report having seen a woman in the center of an urban scene who was photographed in midair as she was committing suicide. Despite seeing the scene repeatedly, 46 % of all participants failed to report seeing a central figure and only 4.8 % reported seeing a falling person. Frequency of noticing the suicidal woman was highest for participants who read a narrative priming story that increased the extent to which she was schematically congruent with the scene. In contrast to this robust effect ofinattentional blindness, a majority of participants reported seeing other peripheral objects in the visual scene that were equally difficult to detect, yet more consistent with the scene. Follow-up qualitative analyses revealed that participants reported seeing many elements that were not actually present, but which could have been expected given the overall context of the scene. Together, these findings demonstrate the robustness of inattentional blindness and highlight the specificity with which different visual primes may increase noticing behavior.


Out of Mind, Out of Sight: Unexpected Scene Elements Frequently Go Unnoticed Until Primed

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