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Inattentional Blindness: Another Approach to the Question, Why Can They Not See?
Friday, 14 September 2007 09:45

by Andrew Bard Schmookler


My naming my website “NoneSoBlind” indicates how struck I have been that so many of my fellow Americans have been unable to see something I regard as so blatant, as well as so vital, about the regime wielding power in America. How can people who otherwise seem intelligent, and who otherwise seem decent, fail to see that this Bushite gang is a bunch of criminal, lying thugs? How can they not see that this regime is a means by which evil forces are dismantling all that’s best in America?

I’ve found this blindness on the part of so many of my countrymen has not only surprised but also deeply troubled me. And so not only have I, in crafting my forum to deal with these dark times, drawn upon the old English Protestant saying, “There are none so blind as those who will not see.” But I’ve continued publicly to wrestle with the question of how this blindness is to be understood.

Early on, here on NSB, I posited a psycho-cultural explanation of how the vulnerabilities and defects of otherwise good people are being exploited by these Bushite “masters of the theater of the moral lie.” Thus in the piece, I suggest that people who have imbibed an overly strict morality, and have therefore been unable to integrate their forbidden impulses into their conscious selves, have unconsciously welcomed a chance to identify with the enacting of evil under the guise of the Bushites’ false righteousness. (See: Here’s the puzzle: How is it that many remarkably decent people can support leaders who are remarkable precisely for their lack of such decency? Which can be found here. )

And in more recent weeks, I called attention to some stunning research that demonstrates that a great many people in America today can have their political views driven in the direction of fascist values and perspectives by having their fear of death evoked, sometimes even in very indirect and subtle ways. The research described in the piece by John Judis (?), published originally in The New Republic, suggests one possibly important factor in the warping of political perception by many of those who have given their support to this fascist regime;

Now I’ve come upon another line of thinking that may help illuminate this puzzle of the dangerous blindness of so many Americans. Before I make this latest foray into solving this puzzle, let me first say that the answer need not be one factor or another, but can be some mixture of all of them, and perhaps others besides. Deep human behavioral phenomena are often “over-determined,” i.e. are brought about by subtle and intricate combinations and interactions of forces.

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I just happened lately to be reading the book Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin (an autistic woman who has become famous for her understanding of animals. In the course of her discussion, she talks about how “normal people literally don’t see a lot of things.” She writes (p. 24):
There’s a famous experiment by a psychologist named Daniel Simons…called Gorilla in Our Midst, that shows you how bad people’s visual awareness is. In the experiment they show people a videotape of a basketball game and ask them to count how many passes one team makes. Then, a little while into the tape, while everyone is sitting there counting passes, a woman wearing a gorilla suit walks onto the screen, stops, turns, faces the camera, and beats her fists on her chest. Fifty percent of all people who watch this video don’t see the gorilla!

Even when the experimenters ask them directly, “did you notice the gorilla?” they say, “The what?” It’s not that they don’t remember the lady in the gorilla suit…These folks actually didn’t see the lady gorilla in the first place.
This theme recurs later in the book, as she introduces the concept of “inattentional blindness” (which is the title of a book by Arien Mack and Irvin Rock). One key part of the idea is that people tend to see only what they are looking for. Grandin writes (p. 51):
[I]t’s practically impossible for a human being to actually see something brand-new in the first place… Humans are built to see what they’re expecting to see, and it’s hard to expect to see something you’ve never seen.

Maybe it’s mixing up two kinds of phenomena that occur on such different levels that they cannot be understood in the same terms. But nonetheless, the question occurs to me: Might the inability of many Americans to see the blatant fascist evil before their eyes for what it is be an instance of inattentional blindness? Perhaps, according to this idea, these Americans simply cannot see what they are not looking for.

It is not clear that the failure to notice a woman in a gorilla suit putting herself for a moment before a camera showing a basketball game can be compared to the failure of people to notice that an American presidency has become, before their eyes, the very kind of dishonest and thuggish regime Americans have traditionally prided themselves on opposing. But then again, perhaps the phenomena are akin: for some people, such evil in the White House might be the kind of thing so new and unexpected that they simply cannot see it.

Grandin speaks of human beings in general. But it should be recalled that though — amazingly — fifty percent of people failed to see the woman in the gorilla suit, the other half of the people in the study did see her. And so whatever may be the tendencies of human beings generally, this inattentional blindness seems to be the result of other factors as well.

My guess is that people differ in their ability to see the new; that they differ in how ready they are to accommodate their conceptual framework to take into account new information entering their visual field, as opposed to the inclination to disregard any such information that challenges their pre-existing scheme of understanding.

The phenomenon of “inattentional blindness,” according to that hypothesis, would be a function of how humans are “built,” as Grandin says. But also of how their life experiences have shaped their motivational structures to develop flexibility vs. rigidity of expectation and perception.

Which brings us back around to those other explanatory frameworks for this American blindness. Fear, it has been shown, greatly diminishes people’s tolerance for ambiguity: so those people who have been most vulnerable to fear are probably also those who have the least tolerance for the uncertainties that come with the acknowledgement of the unexpected phenomena that cannot be assimilated into their pre-existing view of the world. And further, those whose psychological structure has required the continual practice of denial and distortion, I would predict, are more likely to be those who fail to notice the woman in the gorilla suit.

Or the fascist evil in the White House.

Andrew Bard Schmookler is an author, speaker, and radio talk-show host.

Schmookler studied as an undergraduate at Harvard College, where he graduated summa cum laude in Social Relations in 1967. Schmookler went on to earn his doctorate in 1977 at the University of California at Berkeley and the Graduate Theological Union in a program specially created to accommodate his comprehensive theory of human history.

In 1984, Dr. Schmookler was awarded the Erik H. Erikson Prize by the International Society for Political Psychology. And in 1985, he was selected by Esquire Magazine as "one of the men and women under forty who are changing the nation." He was selected, in 1999, as one the "Outstanding People of the Twentieth Century" by the International Biographical Centre (of Cambridge, England).

Among Schmookler's books are several bearing on the problem of war and peace, including the prize-winning book The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution (hardback from the University of California Press, 1984; paperback from Houghton Mifflin, 1986; second edition from SUNY Press, 1995), Out of Weakness: Healing the Wounds that Drive Us to War (Bantam Books, 1988), and Sowings and Reapings: The Cycling of Good and Evil in the Human SystemThe Illusion of Choice: How the Market Economy Shapes Our DestinyFool's Gold: The Fate of Values in a World of Goods (Harper Collins, 1993). ). 1997 saw the publication of his personal and philosophic memoir on illness, aging and mortality in the human condition, Living Posthumously: Confronting the Loss of Vital Powers (Henry Holt and Co.).

Dr. Schmookler's most recent book (published by M.I.T Press) is Debating the Good Society: A Quest to Bridge America's Moral Divide, which explores some of the basic issues that underlie this country's political and cultural polarization.

For the past decade, Dr. Schmookler has conducted regular radio conversations -in both red states and blue states-- about the important political and moral controversies of our times. He makes monthly appearances as a guest (by phone) on radio programs on stations in Ohio (WOSU-AM), Minnesota (KAXE-FM), and Virginia (WSVA-AM) to discuss such controversial issues.

Dr. Schmookler makes regular speaking appearances, presenting his ideas to audiences at places such as Harvard University, St. John's College in Annapolis, the University of Wisconsin, Loyola University in Chicago, Principia College, as Presidential Lecturer at the University of Montana, and at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, D.C., as well as to Unitarian congregations around the country and to the Ethical Societies of both St. Louis and Washington.

Andrew Bard Schmookler is married and is the father of three children.
(Knowledge Systems, 1989). He has written two books on the problematic relationship between economic forces and human needs,  
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Comments (5)add comment

a guest said:

Amongst other topics, what really amaze me are the people that are 'blind' to the fact that illegal aliens and radical Islam is a true threat to the US. I believe people following this mindset do not want to hear the truth so they go on hammering Bush (from day one) about any issue that fits their agenda. Is it fair to discuss Iraq? Yes. Is it fair to critize the administration about the Dubai/ports deal? Absolutely. Should we be going after radical Islamists? Definitely.

By no means am I a Bush apologist. I point out the hypocrosy of those that so often attack our government, military and the great we do yet these same people ignore the facts about the real problems in our country. Why is it these same people will not recognize we must protect ourselves from the spread of radical Islam or the illegal aliens that are causing great financial and cultural hardship to this country?
September 14, 2007
Votes: +0

a guest said:

the obvious
dear andrew, it has always been obvious to me too(since i was a child)..bush 41 laid the plot to eliminate john f kennedy(with j edgar hoover's blessings)wrested control of c.i.a,keeping hoover as figurehead..(because of evidence of hoovers homosexuality)the bush crime syndicate has been running the u.s.a. since 1963.bush 41 sponsored nixon in his run for white house,both times...the first time losing to kennedy.no other human being in america has more access to all government buildings,than geo. 41...geo.43,is just following geo.41 orders..as all have done since 1963.the senior bushes,george and barbara,are criminals of behemoth porportions.that do not want to waste their "beautiful"minds on the suffering of others,and truly believe the poor among us,are better off dead.the only cure for america,is to eliminate the top of this long-standing problem..than hope the ranks of command,will dominoe......thanx for your article,..the zappacrat
September 14, 2007 | url
Votes: +0

Winter Patriot said:

Winter Patriot
I told you a long time ago that the Bush administration is running a secret anti-American agenda... but you wouldn't hear of it -- you were too blind to see the truth in front of your own nose.

Are you actually starting to get it now?
September 14, 2007
Votes: +0

a guest said:

re.winter patriot/obvious
dear winter patriot,another obvious thing!bush is running an anti-american agenda.if and when america and israel are demolitioned...the bushes have made sure,there will be very few tears shed.i doubt that any bushes will ever get elected in this country,again and that will leave them free to terrorize us with the help of their massive crime syndicate(al-qaida,taliban,etc..etc..)they vacuumed and siphoned off all our resources-sucked us bone dry and congress seems to be the enablers.nancy pelosi is the mole/avatar...she also participated in the farce and pretended to be something other than what she really is=a traitor... the zappacrat
September 15, 2007 | url
Votes: +0

a guest said:

The primary source for public blindness is informa
I commend Mr. Schmookler for a fascinating and thought provoking article. However, he missed the critical social and physiological factors responsible for the public's inability to clearly understand how government policy is determined and carried out.

The fog of distracting trivial media reporting, endless "debate" of emotionally charged issues, and generally numbing television programming all contribute to the problem of inattentional blindness, but this falls short of explaining why the important issues of our day are addressed in only the most superficial manner and in such a way that benefits the current social and economic order.

While new data from social psychology research has added important details on how perceptions are formed on a physiological and evolutionary basis, this does not alter our understanding of the essential component of mass media conditioning, described by Chomsky as "manufacturing consent". This process has created the false impression that the leadership of our two main political parties represent very different world views, when the reality is that major policy initiatives are largely created outside of public awareness or input and officials in the highest levels of office, especially in the executive branch, are little more than figure heads.

From a very young age, we are conditioned through the education system to be conformist, obedient, and non-questioning of official doctrine. These molds we are placed in are reinforced througout our lives, primarily through information control.

There is a denial factor for many people facing harsh realities, but there is a more powerful drive to protect ourselves, our families, and our communities from grave threats. It is unthinkable that a majority would not want to understand what forces drive our economy and our foreign and domestic policies given that our financial security, health, and personal safety is at stake. How much smoke has been blown to obscure the critical issues of our day such as peak oil, American fiscal insolvency, threats to national sovereignty and job loss under globalization, and corruption at the highest level of government?

With the help of writers from various disciplines and the outstanding research of several investigative journalists, it took 10 years of voracious reading for me to piece together a nearly complete understanding of the true nature of our political system and how it came to be that way. If it weren't for the internet, several crucial pieces of the puzzle would have been missing. It seems reasonable to assume the average person may not have the time, resources, or educational background to reach a similar broad understanding.

Continuing to blame just one party for the atrocities committed by elected officials and trajectory we are taking towards the abyss is a reflection of the delusion created by the media that there is a political system in place that can correct the course we have been so earnestly herded towards.

Why is it that the elaborate abstractions behind major policy initiatives are not brought as clearly into focus as the emotionally charged issues presented to us on a daily basis? The answer lies in the neuroarchitecture of our brains and the evolutionary biology behind it that drives us to preferentially focus on stimuli that activate our amygdalae and visual pathways. This basic response hierarchy is our nature, and even if most people don't understand how it works we can rest assured that there are very powerful people who do and never hesitate to use that knowledge.
September 17, 2007
Votes: +0

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