Change blindness and its political ramifications

June 22, 2010 | By | 1 Reply More

I recently discovered this entertaining video of a simple and impressive change blindness experiment. Here are many additional examples from the lab of psychologist Dan Simons. I’ve also posted on this topic before here.  If you like trying to find the changes, can you find the nine changes in this short video?

It’s amazing that we are so oblivious, yet so many of us are also so confident that significant changes won’t will slip past us.  This undeserved confidence makes us politically vulnerable too, I believe. It takes massive effort to remember that hundreds of politicians who are making claims this month previously made directly contradictory claims only a few months or a few years ago. Whether it’s a change that occurs over a few seconds or a few years, the problem is similar–inability to attend to all of the details around us, especially when we are not primed to be looking for those changes.

It gets all the worse in that our own motivations blind us to information that fails to support our goals (confirmation bias).   Consider that President Obama’s main goal for enacting health care reform was cost control, and then consider that the enacted and highly celebrated program has no single payer provision (which Obama promised, then opposed) and no other meaningful mechanism for controlling the costs of the private health care premiums that most of us will be forced to purchase.  When the final vote came, those long-promised cost-control promise were no where to be seen.  By then, the conversation had been changed to increasing the number of people covered (a laudable goal, but not at all the same thing as cost control).   The topic of cost control was completely smothered in the final debates, yet there was little outcry from most people (though some people tried to warn us).  The long string of outrageously false reasons for attacking Iraq is another example of changes for which the then-sitting president should have been excoriated by the mass media.   Today, we are faced with the alleged open-government president who is more secret than any preceding president, based on his prosecution of whistle-blowers, his rage at those in power who dare to question his hypocritical Afghanistan policy, among other things.   And now, the President who promised open government and net neutrality is presiding over a closed-door shredding of that promise (I know that it hasn’t happened yet, but I know where I’m putting my chips). Somehow, collectively, most Americans still show some respect for a political process that produces mostly painfully dishonest politicians.  If only we would or could pay sufficient attention to it all.

We are a highly vulnerable species, and there is no remedy to our vulnerability other than working hard to keep track of changes–but there are thousands of changes, big and small, everywhere we might look.   The best hope is that we work collectively to document the changes and to remind each other of broken promises and other significant political changes.  We should repeatedly remind ourselves that attention is quite limited and that motivated others see all of us a juicy targets. In short, many people consider themselves to quite knowledgeable about the workings of government, whereas must of us are only aware of the tip of the iceberg. We simply don’t have the working memory capacity to stay aware of most of the vast complex adaptive system of government. To the extent that we’re more confident that we’re knowledgeable, we’re ever more vulnerable.

Related topics include this post on the relationship between attention and morality (and see this post on agnotology) this post on certainty and this post on the Dunning-Kruger Effect.


Category: Politics, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Doubtless many factors contribute to this, some of them as innocuous as being tired or being preoccupied. But a persistent pattern of obliviousness, when it is not related to a deficiency or impairment, I believe has to do with what I call Accountability Aversion. If you're paying attention, you may be held accountable for…well, anything. If you can claim ignorance, if you don't know or didn't notice, it may be a way of ducking responsibility. I think this is learned behavior and socially reinforced. It would be useful to repeat the above experiment with five-year-olds and compare.

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