There was a famous study completed not long ago where a group of people watched a screen that showed two teams passing a basketball back and forth. The respondents were instructed to count how many times the team in the white uniform passed the ball. The task was difficult and required a high degree of concentration. During the test, a large man in a gorilla suit walked into the middle of the screen, stood there for a number of seconds beating his chest, and walked off. Amazingly, only about 50 percent of respondents noticed this occurrence; the rest were too busy counting basketballs.
To raise the stakes, a number of researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston conducted a follow-up study with radiologists. The doctors were given a series of medical slides and told to look for anything that might be cancer. While they were highly proficient at spotting suspicious masses, 83 percent of the radiologists missed the matchbook-sized picture of a gorilla sitting right in the middle of each slide. Matchbook sized! How could anyone not see that?
The answer lies in how our brains respond when given a task that requires a high degree of attention. To reduce distractions, we greatly limit our ability to absorb information that doesn’t pertain directly to the job at hand.
When I sat down to write this column, I had planned to discuss how the results of those two studies can be seen when we interact with patrons. Sometimes we don’t notice obvious signals — the gorillas — coming from a potential client.
On a personal level, I can’t even count how many times I’ve messed up, as a parent, a partner, a manager, employee, friend and fellow human being because I was so involved with my own small needs at the moment that I missed the massive need of the other person in front of me. We all have goals that consume us every day. We are a task-oriented species. Yet, to become fixated on a momentary issue to the point where we no longer notice that someone is uncomfortable or could use a little help is to enslave ourselves to the hamster wheel of our own minds.