We told groups of white women that in a few minutes they would be asked to look through some online profiles of men to pick the best match for one of several roles. Two groups were to look for a socially distant match (a neighbor or a co-worker) and two would look for a more intimate match (a friend or a date). A separate control group was not told anything about searching profiles at all.
After they understood what they were going to look for, we interrupted the study to say that first they had to complete a concentration test to make sure they were paying attention. The concentration task was —you guessed it — the ball tossing video, and the participants were asked to keep their eyes on the ball. The real question was whether the women would be more likely to see the white man when they on the lookout for a close connection.
About two thirds of the women never saw the man walk across the screen in front of them, similar to the previous studies. As we suspected, who they saw depended on what they had on their minds. When the women were set to look for a suitable neighbor or co-worker they saw the black man and the white man equally often. But when they were looking for a friend or a date, they noticed the white man more than twice as often as the black man. The unconscious screener seemed to have racial preferences, but there was not a simple bias to see only whites or only blacks. The women were unconsciously deciding whether the man in the video was the kind of guy they were looking for. If not, he was never consciously perceived.
The simple fact of selectivity has big consequences: at any moment we are aware of just a tiny fragment of all that is around us. Consider your visual experience right now. There is usually no experience of a line in your periphery where your vision stops; there’s just a fading out of what you notice. You can move your eyes around to find the edges, of course, but you normally don’t notice the absence. If you look down, even your nose seems to get out of your way: a half-transparent thing that you almost never see without a mirror despite that it is in plain sight from your eye sockets.
Some psychologists and philosophers think that the rich and detailed conscious experience of the world around us is a grand illusion. The refrigerator light always appears to be on because when it is dark we aren’t looking. Just so, our conscious experience seems to be a rich and detailed picture of the world because where it’s not, we aren’t paying attention.
The idea of selective selectivity means that the unconscious mind may be shaping our experience even more dynamically than previously thought, screening what we see based on goals and emotions. Scientists are only starting to understand how selective selectivity works. Consider what happens when each of your eyes sees something different. That doesn’t happen in daily life, but in the laboratory scientists use a special kind of goggles that project images to each eye independently. One eye sees a face, say, and the other sees an elephant. Do you experience two pictures simultaneously, or a mixed up face with an elephant trunk? Neither: conscious experience toggles back and forth between a face one moment and an elephant the next. The unconscious screener is fickle, but decisive.
Psychologists Georg Alpers and Paul Pauli recently tested whether some kinds of pictures are more likely to be seen than others. On some trials of their experiment, one eye saw a neutral picture like a lamp, and the other eye saw a bloody scene of violence. On other trials, one eye saw a neutral picture and the other saw an erotic nude picture. The subjects’ conscious experiences of the pictures flipped back and forth, but the scenes of sex and violence were more likely to be the first ones seen, and they occupied consciousness much longer than the boring neutral images. Several studies have now confirmed that dangerous things like snakes, angry men, and snarling dogs can break through our concentration and intrude on consciousness. Dirty words and naughty pictures have the same effects. (I imagine it took a lot of delicate conversations between professors and the university ethics boards to produce this knowledge.) The common thread seems to be emotion. If it gets your heart racing it will get your attention.