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Do You See What You See?

by Craig Good

June 27, 2011

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Donate There is a famous video that demonstrates selective attention or inattentional blindness. If something about a basketball game doesn't ring a bell, go watch the video now and then continue reading.

A recent story on NPR relates how a police officer may have been a victim of inattentional blindness. In 1994, while in hot foot pursuit of a suspect, Officer Conley passed right by a beating " which turned out to be a bunch of cops beating up on another cop by accident.
"Conley kept saying over and over again, 'I didn't see anything, I don't know why I didn't see anything, I wish I had seen something,'" Lehr says.

But the investigators didn't believe Conley. They thought he was lying to protect his fellow officers.

Conley was indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice. At trial he was convicted and sentenced to 34 months in prison.
Researchers later tried to simulate the same situation in a real-world setting.
"Only about a third of the subjects reported seeing the fight that we had staged," says Chabris.

And broad daylight didn't cure the problem. In the light of day 40 percent still didn't notice the student being beaten.

Unfortunately this work was only published this month, far too late to factor into the Conley case.
It seems quite plausible that Conley was telling the truth. The headline editor at NPR got it all backwards. It's not that you don't believe what you see, because you do believe what you think you see. The problem is that we simply don't see things that aren't part of what we're focused on. Something to keep in mind the next time you're urged to give credence to eyewitness testimony.


by Craig Good

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