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

Abstract

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 of inattentional 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.

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Notes

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    Asking students to identify themselves could have led to less complete reporting of elements about which students were uncertain. However, given that students were explicitly instructed to list as many elements from the scene as possible, reporting elements about which students were uncertain was associated with doing better, not worse. This, we believe, decreased the likelihood of omitting uncertain scene elements.

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Acknowledgments

Preparation of this report was supported in part by National Institutes of Health grant R01 CA140933, by the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology, and by a Society in Science – Branco Weiss Fellowship to George Slavich. We thank Lauren Anas, Waki Gamez, and Connie Turcott for assisting with data management.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest with respect to their authorship or the publication of this article.

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Correspondence to George M. Slavich.

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Slavich, G.M., Zimbardo, P.G. Out of Mind, Out of Sight: Unexpected Scene Elements Frequently Go Unnoticed Until Primed. Curr Psychol 32, 301–317 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-013-9184-3

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Keywords

  • Visual attention
  • Selective attention
  • Perception
  • Inattentional blindness
  • Figure-ground perception
  • Aschematic blindness
  • Priming
  • Expectations
  • Transformational teaching