by Grace Garland | Published on 25 September 2019 for The Ethics Institute monthly newsletter
It is psychologically impossible to focus on a large number of things at the same time, because we are not endowed with unlimited powers of attention. We must choose which parts of the world around us to hone in on if we are to make sense of it. Of course, on the way, we leave things out. This is known as ‘selective attention’ and it is a critical and unavoidable part of meaning-making that informs the choices we make and the way we behave.
"This is Fine" meme image source: Imgur
Take the example of the “Invisible Gorilla Test”, conducted by Simons and Chabris, where participants were told to watch a video and count the number of times a ball was passed between figures on the screen. At one point in the video, somebody dressed in an enormous, hulking, hairy gorilla suit walks among the figures throwing the balls, looks around for a few seconds, beats its chest, and languidly exits the field of vision. “Did you see anything out of the ordinary in the video?” they were asked afterwards. A full 50% of participants said “Nope!”, and proudly gave their tally of the number of ball passes, as they were instructed. The video is available online.
This sort of unintentional blindness is just one of those human things resulting from the reality of selective attention. Unfortunately, it is very easy for selective attention to become 'wilful blindness', which is when we intentionally ignore certain things because it suits us to do so. Let’s explore what it looks like through the pedestrian analogy of bad weather at a wedding. And yes, this anecdote bears the weighty disclaimer ‘based on a true story’. The wedding-storm story is retold here (in gratuitous hyperbole and with apologies for the licence) simply to get a concept across. Mindful of my friends and their families reading this, I hasten to state that the weather was far from the most memorable or important component of the event, which was special and beautiful and fun. Here goes.
Much planning and many resources had gone into this particular event, which was to take place on a farm. The biggest investment was the construction of a large barn, large enough to house the entire reception party, and no doubt to be used as a tractor shed thereafter. The ceremony itself was in a verdant field of clover and kikuyu, with benevolent bovines chewing the cud in the middle distance. Hard to picture a more meaningful or beautiful set-up for this particular couple to tie the knot, and it all had the makings of ‘the perfect wedding’. Which is probably why the first whispers of “it’s a bit nippy” were only whispers, and jerseys were slipped into surreptitiously, not to draw attention. In truth, the temperature plunged dramatically, and a vicious wind flew in right at the moment the bride arrived, so that her veil cling-wrapped itself to her head. At one point, a piece of paper from the pastor’s notes was carried off into the field and had to be summarily fetched by a dutiful and shivering bridesmaid. Everyone sat stoically for an hour in wind that was clearly working itself into some sort of pastoral cyclone, before obediently flinging some confetti into the stratosphere, and finally shuffling, relieved, into the shelter of the big barn. As the evening wore on, so the storm raged. Doors had to be closed and there was no question of being able to sit outside to enjoy the view. We were in a nuptial storm bunker, on lockdown. Only the bravest made it to the bathrooms outside and lived to tell the tale.
Here’s the thing. The storm was not mentioned once throughout the ceremony, or in any of the speeches at the reception. The microphone was just turned up a little louder, and proceedings continued. The guests discussed it among themselves, but it was never acknowledged publicly that the roof was rattling and the benevolent bovines from earlier may in fact have been blown away by now. Notice that there was more than just selective attention at play here: The Case of the Rattling Roof is not quite the same as The Invisible Gorilla Test. While the latter is a powerful demonstration of our psychological necessity to not notice everything (even a loitering gorilla), the former was a refusal to acknowledge what is impossible not to notice, viz. the pastoral cyclone threatening to bring down the shiny new barn on our very heads. Human beings can’t help that we have limited psychological capacities, but it is another step to wilfully exclude certain bits of reality just because they spoil our sense of comfort or occasion.
Again, ignoring the wind at a wedding is harmless and even somewhat endearing, and is only mentioned here for the sake of metaphor. Yet there are many other times when our ignoring something causes harm. And here’s where it gets serious. At the level of the personal, we selectively attend to matters related to our families, our careers, our hobbies, all the while working towards some conception of what we want our lives to look like. ‘The perfect life’ is planned for, now let the festivities begin. At some stage, other information blows cross our path – news of economic inequality in our country, for example, or plastic pollution in the ocean, or human rights abuses at multinational corporations – and we are faced with a choice. To pay attention, or not to pay attention, that is the question.
Option 1, paying attention, really paying attention, will likely lead to the uncomfortable realisation that some part of our original life plan may have to change. We may have to be more charitable, or start recycling, or stop buying those products we really like. There are more radical ways to respond, but we could start there. On the other hand, option 2, we could carry on as per the original plan, and indeed human beings have all of the psychological tools at our disposal to justify doing so. We could re-describe the situation to ourselves in a way that makes our individual actions have zero impact on the problems. We could single-mindedly prioritise our hopes and dreams so that they become too important to allow for distractions. We could point to the government, or any other role-player, and experience righteous anger at its failings to solve the problems, because that is their job, after all. In short, we could wilfully turn away, and still feel good about ourselves.
When large groups of people respond to uncomfortable realities in the first way – by expanding the field of their attention and care – we have the makings of a just society. When large groups of people respond to uncomfortable realities in the second way – by ignoring them – we have a corrupt society that is structurally blind to injustice.
There is potentially a kind of option 3, where external problems are just not known, and so continuing along the personal life path without a wider field of attention and care seems fine. Yet it is hard to conceive of a situation where this level of ignorance is possible, given the amount of information available about economic inequality, climate change, human rights abuses, racism, corruption, gender-based violence, animal cruelty, deforestation… the list goes on. These days, ignorance is not the excuse it used to be. When the roof over your head is creaking dangerously, so loud that conversation has to pause with each creak, it is not possible to say “I didn’t know”.
We can’t get away from our instinct to select what we pay attention to, and are never going to be able to care about every unfair or unjust thing around us, but we can be held accountable for wilfully ignoring something we have noticed but don’t want to acknowledge. It may be warm and comfortable inside the barn, but outside the storm is raging. We would all be a lot better off if we talked about what makes us uncomfortable, even if it involves admitting things are not perfect. If we talk about it, we can do something about it. Make no mistake, there are gale-force winds blowing through the safe ceremonies of our lives in these early decades of the 21st century. Don’t look away.
Grace Garland is an Associate of The Ethics Institute, responsible for communications and editorial projects. She holds a Master of Business Administration from University of Stellenbosch Business School, and is currently studying towards a Master of Applied Ethics at University of the Witwatersrand.