#20 The Friday Digest — Do you see what I see?

Humans develop cognitive heuristics over time — a fancy term for mental shortcuts. These shortcuts allow us to visually scan patterns that help find important information, fast, which aids decision making.

We’re pattern seekers

We all have a tendency to perceive meaningful connections between un-related things. We try to detect patterns in our environment all the time because it makes learning easier.

Problem is, prominent and seemingly quite noticeable information, objects or events can go completely unnoticed because we often see only what we’re looking for. This is referred to as inattention blindness or pattern recognition errors.

A Gorilla hiding in plain sight

In a 2013 study psychological scientists from Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital found that 83% of radiologists didn’t notice an image of a gorilla embedded in a computed tomography (CT) lung scan. This Gorilla was 48x the size of an average lung nodule.

Why did so many highly trained-specialists miss this?! Quite simply, because they weren’t looking for it.

The 17%

Let’s refer to the Radiologists who saw the Gorilla as outliers. These ‘outliers’ found something that the vast majority didn’t.

In this case, the Gorilla was irrelevant — it had no implication — however if we consider the millions of dollars we invest into desired outcomes in which the majority of people see what they want or expect to, perhaps our friends “the outliers” become much more valuable.

This doesn’t mean that we should distrust all patterns and the subsequent presumptions; it does however emphasise the importance of cognitive diversity in groups — hearing from those who see things differently — if we want to avoid the dreaded ‘group think’.

“Groupthink is a mode of thinking in which individual members of small cohesive groups tend to accept a viewpoint or conclusion that represents a perceived group consensus, whether or not the group members believe it to be valid, correct, or optimal. Groupthink reduces the efficiency of collective problem solving within such groups.” — Brittanica

Possible countermeasures

  • Challenge yourself to test a ‘desired’ outcome in multiple ways (how often have you seen someone ‘test’ one option and find the answer they expected?!)
  • Seek dissent — people who disagree with an approach or option (use red teaming or ritual dissent if inexperienced)
  • Minimise biased or limiting questions in surveys & research
  • Speak to a Designer (User Experience, Human Centrered et al)
  • Replace peer reviews with pair programming

Wrapping up

  • Inattentional blindness is about the failure to notice unexpected events and objects located directly in our field of vision (or close to it)
  • Change blindness is about the failure to notice changes in a scene when brief interruptions of visual fixation on this scene are involved.

What we’re thinking about — what we’re focused on — filters the world around us so aggressively that it literally shapes what we see. So, we need to think carefully about the way we research and test assumptions and the instructions we give to others, because what we tell them to look for may in part determine what they see and don’t see.

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