The highly diverse operations of System 2 have one feature in common: they require attention and are disrupted when attention is drawn away. Here are some examples:
• Brace for the starter gun in a race.
• Focus attention on the clowns in the circus.
• Focus on the voice of a particular person in a crowded and noisy room.
• Look for a woman with white hair.
• Search memory to identify a surprising sound.
• Maintain a faster walking speed than is natural for you.
• Monitor the appropriateness of your behavior in a social situation.
• Count the occurrences of the letter a in a page of text.
• Tell someone your phone number.
• Park in a narrow space (for most people except garage attendants).
• Compare two washing machines for overall value.
• Fill out a tax form.
• Check the validity of a complex logical argument.
In all these situations you must pay attention, and you will perform less well, or not at all, if you are not ready or if your attention is directed inappropriately. System 2 has some ability to change the way System 1 works, by programming the normally automatic functions of attention and memory. When waiting for a relative at a busy train station, for example, you can set yourself at will to look for a white-haired woman or a bearded man, and thereby increase the likelihood of detecting your relative from a distance. You can set your memory to search for capital cities that start with N or for French existentialist novels. And when you rent a car at London’s Heathrow Airport, the attendant will probably remind you that “we drive on the left side of the road over here.” In all these cases, you are asked to do something that does not come naturally, and you will find that the consistent maintenance of a set requires continuous exertion of at least some effort.
The often-used phrase “pay attention” is apt: you dispose of a limited budget of attention that you can allocate to activities, and if you try to go beyond your budget, you will fail. It is the mark of effortful activities that they interfere with each other, which is why it is difficult or impossible to conduct several at once. You could not compute the product of 17 × 24 while making a left turn into dense traffic, and you certainly should not try. You can do several things at once, but only if they are easy and undemanding. You are probably safe carrying on a conversation with a passenger while driving on an empty highway, and many parents have discovered, perhaps with some guilt, that they can read a story to a child while thinking of something else.
Everyone has some awareness of the limited capacity of attention, and our social behavior makes allowances for these limitations. When the driver of a car is overtaking a truck on a narrow road, for example, adult passengers quite sensibly stop talking. They know that distracting the driver is not a good idea, and they also suspect that he is temporarily deaf and will not hear what they say.
Intense focusing on a task can make people effectively blind, even to stimuli that normally attract attention. The most dramatic demonstration was offered by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons in their book The Invisible Gorilla. They constructed a short film of two teams passing basketballs, one team wearing white shirts, the other wearing black. The viewers of the film are instructed to count the number of passes made by the white team, ignoring the black players. This task is difficult and completely absorbing. Halfway through the video, a woman wearing a gorilla suit appears, crosses the court, thumps her chest, and moves on. The gorilla is in view for 9 seconds. Many thousands of people have seen the video, and about half of them do not notice anything unusual. It is the counting task—and especially the instruction to ignore one of the teams—that causes the blindness. No one who watches the video without that task would miss the gorilla. Seeing and orienting are automatic functions of System 1, but they depend on the allocation of some attention to the relevant stimulus. The authors note that the most remarkable observation of their study is that people find its results very surprising. Indeed, the viewers who fail to see the gorilla are initially sure that it was not there—they cannot imagine missing such a striking event. The gorilla study illustrates two important facts about our minds: we can be blind to the obvious, and we are also blind to our blindness.