June 22, 2011

NONE SO BLIND AS THOSE WHO SEE (via The Other Brother):

Why Seeing (The Unexpected) Is Often Not Believing (Alix Spiegel, 6/20/11, NPR)

Obviously, it wasn't possible to recreate all aspects of the case, like the adrenaline rush of running after a murder suspect, or the chaos of so many people moving through the same space. But Chabris and Simons did their best. Their results were published this month in the journal i-Perception.

To simulate Conley's focus on the fleeing suspect, Simons and Chabris gave their undergraduate volunteers very specific instructions.

"The subject in the study was supposed to follow behind the jogger at a fixed distance and count how many times the jogger touched his hat," Simons says.

The purpose of this was to maintain the focus of their attention, just as Conley was focused on the suspect he was chasing to make sure he didn't pull a gun or throw something away.

Then about a minute in the run, slightly off to the side, Chabris and Simons had three students stage a fight.

"We had two students beating up a third, punching him and kicking him and throwing him to the ground," Chabris says.

The question was whether the students would see the fight, and under the conditions — nighttime — that most closely resembled Conley's experience. The numbers were shockingly low.

"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.

Conley was the sole officer convicted after the 1995 beating of Michael Cox. His 34-month sentence for perjury was eventually overturned in 2004 after it became clear that the government had withheld documents helpful to Conley's case. But in the meantime Conley lost his position on the police force. For years he bumped around from job to job.

But both Chabris and Simons are hopeful that this work might influence future cases.

"We hope that maybe this will influence the courts to take notice of the fact that people don't see everything around them — and they intuitively think that they will," says Simons. "And those two things together can lead to a lot of mistakes: potentially convicting people of crimes that they weren't really guilty of."

And the relevance of this work isn't limited to what happens in court rooms.

Chabris points out that our inability to absorb visual information coupled with our mistaken belief that we actually are able to absorb a lot of it influences all kinds of behavior.

"This underlies problems with using cell phones while driving and all kinds of situations like that," Chabris says.

Even noticing can be useless. When we were kids, growing up in the 'hood, we were playing on the front lawn one day, across from the local high school, and saw one kid chase another down the street, tackle him, and take the football away from him.

Except that it turned out to be a mugger, chasing a woman, and taking her purse.

Posted by at June 22, 2011 6:19 AM

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