- Distractability is a common phenomenon with serious consequences.
- In dire circumstances, 80 percent of us will be stunned and bewildered, with rational functioning impaired.
- We can improve our chances of survival in dangerous situations to include peripheral possibilities.
Should you ignore headlines while counting? Or a Gorilla wandering onto a scene of players tossing a basketball?
Let's investigate these two unusually paradoxical examples indirectly involving distractibility.
In an experiment by Richard Wiseman (2004), participants were told to count the number of photographs in a newspaper. And right on page two, in huge letters, they were given the message: "STOP COUNTING—THERE ARE 43 PHOTOGRAPHS IN THIS NEWSPAPER."
Despite this exceptional time-saving offer, many subjects missed the headline altogether. They were much too absorbed, conscientiously counting to be interrupted by anything not pictorial.
Here's a second illustration of what's been called "inattentional blindness": Participants in a Harvard University study were exposed to two experimental conditions. Watching a video of two teams practicing basketball, one wearing white shirts and the other donned in black, subjects were asked to count the number of back-and-forth passes between the players wearing white.
In the first condition, after 45 seconds, a woman dressed in full gorilla regalia walks straight through the scene for five seconds—and 56 percent of those watching didn't even notice.
In the second video, this primate stops directly facing the camera, unabashedly pounds its hairy chest, and then leisurely saunters off—an action lasting no less than nine seconds. Still, some 50 percent didn't spot the intruder.
So what's up with this?
Here's how Daniel Simons (2023), one of the two psychologists who engineered this experiment, explains the remarkable phenomenon (and many other studies—before and since—have demonstrated this as well):
Distinctive and unusual objects do not automatically capture our attention. It’s difficult—if not impossible—to be aware of everything going on around you, or even right in front of you. . . . No matter how good your eyesight, the vast majority of your surroundings are essentially out of focus.
Active Passiveness? Inactive Action? What Role Might Distractability Play?
What exactly does it take to shift one's focus toward that which lies beyond what—at the moment—is most concerning? Researching real-life emergencies, Ben Sherwood discusses the "crisis personality," an intriguing facet of personality generally.
John Leach (2023), a pioneer in the study of survival psychology, has given us a designation for how most people react in unexpectedly ominous situations: the incredulity response. They have a problem with integrating what they are experiencing, and they underestimate what may be life-threatening, giving the situation normalcy. As a result, their ability to make prompt, judicious decisions has been compromised.
Scrutinizing the three classes of survival reactions, Leach ultimately constructed what's now called "the theory of 10-80-10."
To Leach, in dire circumstances, three different mindsets and manners of thinking exist. Seen as optimal, people with the first state of mind view the crisis as inevitable and, therefore, anticipate it. These accepting individuals remain calm and collected, patiently refraining from acting until they've sized up the situation.
Next, they do whatever is required, typically taking charge of the situation and assisting others in following their lead. Moreover, they recognize that, at times, taking corrective action can translate into not taking action. And so the paradoxical concepts of "active passiveness" or "inactive action."
However, most of us, or around 80 percent, will feel so "stunned and bewildered" that our rational functioning will be impaired, leaving us to behave reflexively, almost mechanically. Sweating, nauseated, with a racing heart, and feeling lethargic or numb, we'll be afflicted with tunnel vision.
The question is whether we can recover quickly enough from such brain lock—or "analysis paralysis"—to estimate what the situation calls for logically.
The third reaction to imminent disaster is to see it literally for what it is and give up entirely. This last group, the final 10 percent, can be counted on to do the wrong—or worst—thing. So alarmed as to be unable to adapt appropriately, their irrational behavior will be counterproductive and often ruinous.
Might You Make Your Luck? Or Is It Luck at All?
Once you know how limited your environmental perception is and want to do something about it, you can expand your focal point to include peripheral possibilities not before realized.
Richard Wiseman (2004—and, perchance, did he get that last name by luck alone) suggests how, like "lucky people," we can make a conscious effort to pay more attention to what may not be in our immediate interest.
And by opening ourselves up to opportunities not otherwise apparent, we'll be free to explore the otherwise hidden survivalist secrets of serendipity.
To this researcher, there's nothing surreal about luck: It's not some magical gift but a mental state, for only 10 percent of life does Wiseman perceive as purely random. Instead, it's one's attitude and behavior that governs 90 percent of what happens to them.
And here, paraphrased, are four reasons he offers for what only appears fortuitous:
1. More relaxed generally and operating out of elevated consciousness of survival contingencies, "lucky" people are more receptive, or readily adjust, to what they haven't expected. Hence, they're better prepared to exploit calamities for chance opportunities.
2. Trusting their intuition, they make good decisions without analyzing why. They're much better than so-called "unlucky" people, who tend to regret their decisions and trust the wrong people.
3. In the face of failure, they persevere, confident they'll realize their objectives and goals. Optimistically, they believe that things will work out for them, and, much more often than not, they do. That's not true of unlucky people, who prepare themselves to expect the worst, thereby increasing the odds it will.
4. Misnamed lucky individuals have a survivalist knack for turning bad luck into good fortune. What would be disastrous to the unlucky constitutes, again, a special opportunity for them.
You can't change your DNA or avoid the trauma of some drunk driver crashing into you. But according to Wiseman (and other later theorists), with the right survivalist mindset, you can control far more of your destiny than you might imagine.
© 2023 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.
Leach, J. (2023). Survival Psychology, 1994th Edition. New York: Kindle Ed. J-Leach/dp/0333518551
Sherwood, B. (2010). The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science That Could Save Your Life. New York: Grand Central Publishing
White, R.C., Davies, M., & Davies, A.M.A. (2018, Jan 9). Inattentional Blindness on the Full-Attention Trial: Are We Throwing out the Baby With the Bathwater? Conscious Cognition, 59, 64-77. DOI: 10.1016/j.concog.2017.10.002
Wiseman, R. (2004). The Luck Factor: The Four Essential Principles. New York: Miramax Books.