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It was a summer evening when Tony Cornell tried to make the residents of Cambridge, England see a ghost. He got dressed up in a sheet and walked through a public park waving his arms about. Meanwhile his assistants observed the bystanders for any hint that they noticed something strange. No, this wasn’t Candid Camera. Cornell was a researcher interested in the paranormal. The idea was first to get people to notice the spectacle, and then see how they understood what their eyes were telling them. Would they see the apparition as a genuine ghost or as something more mundane, like a bloke in a bed sheet?
The plan was foiled when not a single bystander so much as raised an eye brow. Several cows did notice, however, and they followed Cornell on his ghostly rambles. Was it just a fluke, or did people “not want to see” the besheeted man, as Cornell concluded in his 1959 report?
Okay, that stunt was not a very good experiment, but twenty years later the eminent psychologist Ulric Neisser did a better job. He filmed a video of two teams of students passing a basketball back and forth, and superimposed another video of a girl with an umbrella walking right through the center of the screen. When he asked subjects in his study to count the number of times the ball was passed, an astonishing 79 percent failed to notice the girl with the umbrella. In the years since, hundreds of studies have backed up the idea that when attention is occupied with one thing, people often fail to notice other things right before their eyes.
When you first learn about these studies they seem deeply strange. Is it really possible that we are constantly failing to notice things right in front of us? Is there some mysterious force screening what we see and what remains hidden? According to Neisser the answer is yes, we are constantly overlooking much of the world around us and no, there is nothing mysterious about it. The key is to realize that this is just what attention is: selectivity. For a brain with finite computing power, zooming in to focus on one thing always means picking up less information about everything else. That’s how we are able to concentrate on anything at all and leave behind the blooming, buzzing bundle of distraction that is the rest of the world. It is also why being absorbed in a basketball game renders us blissfully oblivious to all requests to take out the garbage. Prioritizing one thing and neglecting everything else are two sides of the same coin.
Simple selectivity cannot be the end of the story, though, because recent research suggests that we miss some unattended things more than others. That’s right – the brain is selectively selective. In new research my colleagues Jazmin Brown-Iannuzzi, Sophie Trawalter, Kelly Hoffman and I pushed the idea of selective selectivity further by asking whether the unconscious screener might have priorities of its own. Scads of studies have suggested that the unconscious mind is riddled with stereotypes and biases, even among people who are consciously well intentioned. We asked whether the unconscious screener is prejudiced.
We started with a video of two teams passing basketballs around, as in Neisser’s early study. Then we superimposed a video of a young black man or a young white man walking across the screen. Would there be a racial disparity in which man gets noticed? We predicted that it would depend on the kind of goals the study’s participants had in mind. For decades, social scientists have known that prejudices show a social distance effect: people are more approving of stereotyped groups at a cold, impersonal distance than when they are up close and personal. For instance, polls show that whites are more likely to support equality for black Americans at a distance (such as saying that they support integrated neighborhoods and workplaces) than to support close personal ties (such as saying that they approve of someone in their family having an inter-racial marriage). Although attitudes toward all of these topics have become steadily less prejudiced since the 1960’s, the gap between close and far social distances has remained remarkably constant.