How well can you concentrate?

Piers YoungNotes3 Comments

If you haven’t seen this before, here’s an olden but golden experiment that’s well worth doing if you’ve got a moment. [Thanks Andrew for the original link, and Marginal Revolution for the research refs]

  1. Follow this link
  2. Ignore the team in black who are trying to confuse matters, and try to count the number of passes made by the team in white T-shirts
  3. Check below to see if you got it right
[Update: It’s worth doing the experiment before reading on :)]
The right number is (I think) 14. But that’s not really the point.

The point is this: did you see the gorilla walk across the screen and beat its chest? According to the original research (PDF), there’s a fifty-fifty chance you didn’t. Certainly when John Seely Brown tried it out at KM Europe 2004 a large number in the audience didn’t see it.

Scientists have been researching this “inattentional blindness“, and other similar phenomenon – and the theory seems to be that there is no perception without attention.

Ahem. If that’s right then I think it’s worth stressing:

There is no perception without attention

The gorilla example is shocking, but inattentional blindness is pretty normal. Mack and Rock cite William James’ description :

“When waiting for the distant clock to strike, our mind is so filled with its image that at every moment we think we hear the longed-for or dreaded sound. So of an awaited footstep. Every stir in the wood is for the hunter his game; for the fugitive his pursuers. Every bonnet in the street is momentarily taken by the lover to enshroud the head of his idol”

– W.James (1981). Principles of psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

From what I can make out from a quick skim of the research, the inattentional blindness is standard enough that the 50% of you missed the gorilla are on the healthy, balanced, I-know-how-to-concentrate side of the line. The 50% that saw it just weren’t paying attention to the task at hand. Tut tut.

But here’s a problem. If you focus on your work, day-to-day, week to week, if you concentrate hard on the task at hand, perhaps even reach a wonderful, efficient state of flow, the chances are that you’ll miss any golden gorillas of opportunity that present themselves. Full concentration ‘flow’ has its benefits – productivity for one – but it seems also to have a downside. On an individual level, this seems to be a variant of the hare brain tortoise mind approach to problem solving. (i.e. think hard but take tea breaks), but might it not affect teams or groups as well? If there is no perception without attention, then engaged employees won’t spot the gorillas unless you allow them to (they’re concentrating on the tasks at hand). Awkwardly, though, while the rest of the group or company are more likely to spot this gorilla, (because they’re disaffected and not paying attention) because they’re disaffected, you’re less likely to hear them point it out.

All of which might seem to suggest that if you as a group are going to spot the golden gorilla, you’ve got to give people time in which they don’t pay attention to work and/or actively seek out the views and opinions of the disaffected.

Or it might suggest that someone’s been stealing my bananas while I’ve been writing this.

[Update: I don’t know how these figures change between men and women – and would be interested to find out if anyone knows.]

3 Comments on “How well can you concentrate?”

  1. Hi Orkideh,
    and thanks. Found you on both – and though I can’t make head or tail of the Persian script it look much prettier. Anyway, trying to sort out aggregating them in a translated manner πŸ™‚
    Lovely meeting you too! Hope if I don’t see you in Oxford I’ll see you soon in London
    take care

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *