Inattentional Blindness and Real-World Examples

Why You Miss What's Right In Front of You

Bored woman in theater audience
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Have you ever wondered why you usually miss glaring bloopers in major motion pictures? If you are like most people, you probably believe that just because your eyes are open, you are seeing. So why do we sometimes fail to see things that are right in front of our eyes?

Defining Inattentional Blindness

The reality is that attention plays a major role in visual perception. One of the primary reasons why you fail to notice these mistakes in films and television programs is a psychological phenomenon known as inattentional blindness.

When your attention is focused on one demanding task, such as paying attention to the main character in a movie, you might not notice unexpected things entering your visual field.

Research on Inattentional Blindness

The term was first coined by psychologists Arien Mack and Irvin Rock who observed the phenomenon during their perception and attention experiments. "Because this inability to perceive, this sighted blindness, seemed to be caused by the fact that subjects were not attending to the stimulus but instead were attending to something else ... we labeled this phenomenon inattentional blindness (IB)," they explained.

One of the best-known experiments demonstrating inattentional blindness is the Simons and Chabris "invisible gorilla test." In this experiment, researchers asked participants to watch a video of people tossing a basketball and the observers were told to count the number of passes or to keep track of the number of throws versus bounce passes.

Afterward, the participants were asked if they had noticed anything unusual while watching the video. In most of the tests, approximately 50 percent of the participants reported seeing nothing out of the ordinary.

What was it they had missed? In some instances, a woman dressed in a gorilla suit strolled through the scene, turned to the camera, thumped her chest and walked away.

How on earth could so many people miss such an obvious and unexpected thing right before their eyes? Because their attention was focused elsewhere on a demanding task, the gorilla basically became invisible.

Explanations for Inattentional Blindness

Why does inattentional blindness occur? Rather than focusing on every tiny detail in the world around us, we tend to concentrate on things that are important and then rely on our existing schemas to fill in the rest. This is highly economical and allows us to focus our existing attentional, cognitive, and processing resources on the things that are most important while still allowing us to have a cohesive and seamless experience of the world around us.

One of the reasons why people so often miss the gorilla sauntering through a scene of people playing basketball is simply because the stimulus lacks what is known as ecological validity. How often does a gorilla show up in the middle of a basketball game? Because this is unlikely to happen in a real-world setting, we are simply less likely to notice it.

The obviousness of the stimuli is also important. While we do sometimes fail to miss essential information in the world around us, we are generally pretty good at noticing relevant information such as a car speeding toward us or a deer jumping out of the trees into the road.

A Few Real-World Examples of Inattentional Blindness

We all experience inattentional blindness often, such as in these potential situations:

  • Even though you think you are paying attention to the road, you fail to notice a car swerve into your lane of traffic, resulting in a traffic accident.
  • You are watching a historical film set in ancient Greece. You don't notice a major blooper in which an airplane appears in the background of a pivotal scene.
  • You decide to make a phone call while driving through busy traffic. You fail to notice that the traffic light has turned red, so you run the stop light and end up getting a traffic ticket for inattentive driving.
  • While playing a video game, you are so intently focused on spotting a specific type of "bad guy" that you miss another threat to your character and you end up losing the game.

More Inattentional Blindness Observations

There are certain factors that can affect inattentional blindness as noted by these experts:

  • According to Eysenck and Keane (2011), Simons and Chabis did another similar experiment to the invisible gorilla experiment, but in this one, the participants had to count the number of passes made by either the team in black or the team in white. Out of the participants who were counting passes on the white team, only 42% saw the gorilla, but for the participants who counted passes on the black team, 83% of them saw the gorilla. "This shows the impact of similarity between the unexpected stimulus (gorilla) and task-relevant stimuli (members of the attended team)," note Eysenck and Keane.
  • K. Mauldin (2013) notes that inattentional blindness is similar to change blindness, which is when you miss a change in a stimulus that was there before. In inattentional blindness, you miss a new stimulus, often because of your own expectations.

The Bottom Line

Just because your eyes are open doesn't mean you are seeing everything in the world around you. Perception depends upon numerous factors, including attention. Sometimes we miss the things that are right in front of us.


Eysenck, M. W. & Keane, M. T. (2011). Cognitive psychology: A student's handbook. Psychology Press.

Mack, A. & Rock, I. (1999). Inattentional blindness: An overview by Arien Mack and Irvin Rock. Retrieved from

Mauldin, K. (2013). Inattentional blindness. In A. K. Taylor (Ed.). Encyclopedia of human memory. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, LLC.

Simons, D. J., & Chabris, C. F. (1999). Gorillas in our midst: Sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events. Perception, 28, 1059-1074.

Simons, D. (2012, Sept.). But did you see the gorilla? The problem with inattentional blindness. Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved from

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