Change Blindness: Not Seeing the Obvious


The psychology underlying people’s behaviour is as fascinating as the things they do. “Change blindness” is a case in point. Psychologists describe it as the inability of people to notice anomalies, differences and the unusual in their surroundings. The obvious, it seems, is not always obvious. Two classical examples of change blindness, both conducted as experiments at American universities, serve as illustrations.

The first is known as the “invisible gorilla”. In the middle of a basketball game, a gorilla wanders onto the court — actually, it’s a man dressed in a gorilla suit but he looks, moves and acts like a gorilla. He lumbers around the court, mixes with the players and then exits through a side door. Half the spectators, when questioned afterward, failed to notice the gorilla. They were apparently so intent on the game that they didn’t register such a strange anomaly.

In a second experiment, a stranger on a university campus stopped individual people to ask for directions. In the middle of the resulting conversation, two men carrying a large door passed between the stranger and the person offering directions. During that brief moment, the stranger was replaced by a second stranger, someone of different height, build and clothing. Half the people in the experiment failed to notice that the stranger they had been talking to had been replaced by a second stranger.

Change blindness occurs, psychologists suggest, “because it is not possible to perceive and remember all of the details” that surround us (New Scientist, Feb. 19/11). It also occurs because we stitch together events to fit the reality we expect, keeping the familiar ones that are comfortable while leaving out the others. And, additionally, we sometimes fail to even register sensory evidence that is totally foreign to our sense of reality. Change blindness smooths over events and circumstances to make them compatible with our sense of normal.

This psychological dynamic becomes relevant when applied to environmental matters. And the implications are not reassuring. For example, we seem to have an inherent inclination to overlook or rationalize as normal the weather abnormalities that arise from global warming. If this strategy doesn’t serve to diminish the significance of an extreme weather event in our minds, we excuse it by extending the range of normality — a once-in-a-century event occurring once every ten years is deemed normal. This is a psychological mechanism we use to excuse the significance of exceptional floods, rains, snowfalls, winds, droughts and hot spells. We quickly adopt new extremes into a new normal so that the exception goes unnoticed. Shifting the criteria for normal is one way of activating change blindness.

Because most people now live in the comfort of urbanization, surrounded by human creations and separated from the natural world, the unusual absence of a species of bird, animal or butterfly goes unnoticed. But even when noticed, the absence quickly becomes a new normal, whether this be silence, darkness, missing fish or old-growth forests. Accounts of old timers describing huge salmon runs become a fiction that fails to illustrate the dramatic deterioration that has taken place in a mere lifetime. An environmentally diminished present quickly becomes the new and accepted normal.

Scientific studies that underscore the significance of ecological damage are commonly discredited by change blindness. The public’s impulse is to construe disturbing scientific evidence as opinion because its threatening facts don’t fit into the established system of normalcy. In essence, we have difficulty accepting information that conflicts with our paradigm of understanding — belief takes precedence over evidence. As Marshall McLuhan noted in one of his famous adages, “I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it” is replaced with ”I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t believed it.”

Which raises a more sinister issue. This is the impulse to control evidence in order to control public opinion — deliberately using change blindness for calculated purposes. Scientists in the employ of Canada’s present federal government have repeatedly and increasingly voiced concerns about being censured. Even though these scientists may profess political neutrality, the reality is that all the evidence they collect has unavoidable policy implications — no information is politically neutral. A public without evidence of unprecedented environmental shifts doesn’t register a problem.

Thus, change blindness keeps us from anticipating the future — or, more accurately, the future we anticipate is based on limited experience. Curtail experience and our ability to adapt to climate change or a melting Arctic is handicapped. If oil spills are not part of our personal history, then the real ramifications of oil tankers emptying Northern Gateway’s Alberta crude into pristine West Coast waters is unlikely to register. If wild salmon have always been a part of British Columbia’s ecology, then the actual devastation that could be caused by destructive diseases and parasites emanating from open net-pen salmon farms is unexpected.

This is why history always surprises us. Change blindness keeps us from perceiving what is happening slowly — until the unwanted consequences cannot be avoided. We won’t notice the new stranger if we haven’t registered the first one; we can’t remove gorillas from a basketball court if the action of the game absorbs all our attention.

Unfortunately, the faster we move as a civilization — the more dense, complicated and speedy the surroundings that contain us — the less likely are we to notice what our civilization is doing, where it is going and what it is forfeiting. The energy, excitement and promise of modern civilization is, ironically, an ingenious distraction from its own failings, adroitly hiding from us what it is inflicting upon us. Indeed, this spell of obliviousness functions best in the ubiquitous, intense and unrelenting character of our age. Change blindness keeps us from noticing the changes that are carrying us into an uncertain future.


About Ray Grigg

Ray Grigg is in his ninth year as a weekly environmental columnist for the Campbell River Courier-Islander on BC's Vancouver Island. Before this column, titled Shades of Green - now appearing on as well - Ray wrote a bi-weekly environmental column for five years. He is the author of seven internationally published books on Oriental philosophy, specifically Zen and Taoism. His academic background is in English literature, psychology, cultural history, and philosophy. He has travelled to some 45 countries around the globe.

5 thoughts on “Change Blindness: Not Seeing the Obvious

  1. Normal Is a Moving Target
    Shifting Baselines Measure How Far We’ve Come — or Gone
    By Linton Weeks
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, January 6, 2007

    “Everything is sex,” says Jakeila Atkinson. “It didn’t used to be that way.”
    Just a couple of days before her 21st birthday, Atkinson is sitting at a bus stop on Minnesota Avenue NE on her way home from a job interview.
    She’s talking about popular music and about the ways younger kids dress and talk, but she is also getting at something else, something omnipresent and profound.
    Even at her springy age, she knows that the world around her is in nonstop flux, but she can’t quite put her finger on how to explain it.
    Without realizing it, Atkinson is zeroing in on two lines: the one that runs across the bottom of how we expect the world to be and the one that runs across the top of the world that we will tolerate. Those lines are constantly changing position in cultural space.
    It’s a notion called “shifting baselines.”
    You find it mostly in the scientific realm.
    Shifting baselines “are the chronic, slow, hard-to-notice changes in things, from the disappearance of birds and frogs in the countryside to the increased drive time from Los Angeles to San Diego,” writes marine biologist Randy Olson. “If your ideal weight used to be 150 pounds and now it’s 160, your baseline — as well as your waistline — has shifted.”
    A recent issue of the Lancet notes a “shifting baseline of structural influences” in countries undergoing “rapid social and economic transition.” A research institute’s report in Medicine & Law Weekly refers to the shifting baseline of steroids in the body.
    The term was coined by Daniel Pauly, a biology professor at the University of British Columbia and co-author of the 2003 book “In a Perfect Ocean.”
    He first used it to describe how certain fish populations have diminished over the years. But since then he has observed shifting baselines everywhere he has looked.
    You know them when you see them. Some baselines have risen over time. We’re enjoying longer life spans; we expect more from technology; we have more types of cuisine to choose from these days. Many others have fallen. Clothing is more suggestive; language and manners are coarser; privacy rights have been eroded.
    We have surrendered to longer drive-times. In the past decade, the average one-way commute in the
    Washington area has increased 10 percent. Air quality has deteriorated. In 1996 the Washington area
    experienced 12 bad-air days — Code Orange or worse; in the summer of 2006 there were 17. We routinely accept the fact that tap water is not potable.
    According to the Earth Policy Institute, the planetary consumption of bottled water increased from 98 billion liters in 1999 to 154 billion liters in 2004.
    “If you keep accepting lower baselines,” says the Institute’s Lester R. Brown, “you could be accepting the demise of civilization.”

    The size of phone bills, the price of gas, the number of pills we take, how often we eat at restaurants,
    hemlines, hairlines, legroom on airlines — all shifting baselines.
    Or means. Norms. Benchmarks. Yardsticks.
    Whatever you call them.
    Ty Carlisle, director of the Los Angeles-based Web site– developed to explore Pauly’s notion — says that understanding the approximate natural state of things is essential when it comes to watchdogging the environment. By knowing the ancient levels of water tables and bacteria in drinking water, researchers can understand the positive or negative effects of humans.
    The Web site features bummed-out people. Professional surfer Pat O’Connell says he has become
    complacent: “I’ve accepted the degraded world we have created. I’m no longer fighting the source of the problems but instead I’ve readjusted to accept this as natural.”
    When San Diego councilwoman Donna Frye was growing up, her parents would take her to the beach. “If I had a cut on my hand,” Frye says on the site, her parents would urge her to “get out in the ocean and go for a swim because it will help it heal more quickly.”
    Today high school surfers in San Clemente, Calif., are given hepatitis shots every year because the waters are so polluted.
    The site also provides links to current, pertinent stories and video ads starring comedian Jack Black and Cedric Yarbrough of “Reno 911!”
    For the most part, a shifted baseline suggests a lowered expectation, a settling for less.
    But the concept also has “a very positive purpose,” says Pauly, the father of the phrase. It’s a necessary defense mechanism that enables humankind to adapt and evolve.
    “It means we can endure loss,” he says, and that we can make adjustments to an ever-changing environment.
    New generations are able to start fresh. “If we could transfer vivid emotions about grief and things done to us,” Pauly says, “we would paralyze the next generation.”
    When things decline, he says, “they don’t go from ‘abundant’ to ‘absent.’ ” Changes occur incrementally. It is only possible to see the changes, and change the changes, if baselines are established and people can identify the changes.
    Humans have the ability to adapt, he says. “A species has emerged on Earth that has the ability to
    comprehend and anticipate the things that might render it extinct. We for the first time can see the things that can do us in.”
    That is why people must identify which baselines are important and essential. And hold to them. “Knowledge of the past,” he says, “helps us know where to go.”

  2. Fortunately I haven’t forgot most things since I was a child. I know the weather has changed in Northern BC. As a child growing up in Prince George, January and February were extremely cold. In fact -25 to -45F in the winter were the norm for days and even weeks on end, not unsual as they are now. In high school we were taught that we were on the cusp of a new ice age. Guess what? According to the new “flat earth society” this warm weather is normal.

  3. thanks for this good article. just experienced this phoenom. and had no name for it, went to chat with my neighbor, thought he looked different since the last time, turned out it was his son!

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