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 Half the people in the experiment failed to notice that the stranger they had been talking to had been replaced by a second stranger.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.