Why Inattention Blindness on the Road is a Gorilla of a Problem

May 6, 2011
Some of the nation’s leading distracted driving researchers have uncovered more information about how distracted drivers experience “inattention blindness” while behind the wheel – and, in the process, learned that not all distracted drivers are created equal.

According to University of Utah psychologists, drivers using cell phones fail to see something right in front of them because they are operating on lower working memory capacity. This is the ability to focus attention when and where it is needed, and on more than one thing at a time. Some drivers, however, may be better able focus their attention on the road even when distracted.

Psychology faculty members Jason Watson, Ph.D., and David Strayer, Ph.D., used a video that was created for earlier inattention blindness research featured in the 2010 book The Invisible Gorilla by Christopher Chabris, Ph.D.

Finding the Gorilla

The video depicts six actors passing a basketball, and viewers are asked to count the number of passes. Many people are so intent on counting that they fail to see a person in a gorilla suit stroll across the scene, stop briefly to thump its chest and then walk off.

The study included 197 psychology students, ages 18 to 35, who watched the video after completing a set of math problems to test their working memory capacity. Of the students who noticed the gorilla in the video, researchers only analyzed the video results of students who were at least 80 percent accurate in counting the basketball passes in order to remove potential bias.

A total of 58 percent of participants who counted mostly accurately noticed the gorilla while 42 percent did not. The researchers then considered only the participants who had counted the passes exactly. For those participants, 67 percent with high working memory capacity noticed the gorilla, while only by 36 percent of those with low working memory capacity saw it.

The results suggest that people with high working memory capacity are more likely to see a distraction because they are better able to shift their attention when necessary.

“People who notice the gorilla are better able to focus their attention,” Watson said. “They have a flexible focus in some sense.”

Pay Attention

The study results don’t mean drivers should believe any possible “superior” attention skills give them a pass to talk on a cell phone while behind the wheel.

According to previous University of Utah research, only 2.5 percent of individuals can drive and talk on a cell phone without impairment. And Strayer has conducted studies showing that inattention blindness explains why motorists can fail to see something right in front of them – like a stop light turning green – because they are distracted by the conversation, and how motorists using cell phones impede traffic and increase their risk of traffic accidents.

Watson explained that while some drivers might have the extra flexibility to notice distractions that can cause accidents, it “doesn’t mean people ought to be self-distracting by talking on a cell phone while driving – even if they have better control over their attention.”

The study appears in the May issue of The Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition. To watch the gorilla video, visit http://www.theinvisiblegorilla.com/videos.html.

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