The Role of Social Meaning in Inattentional Blindness: When the Gorillas in Our Midst Do Not Go Unseen

By Aneeta RattanJennifer L. Eberhardt
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology
November2010 Vol. 46 Issue 6 Pages 1085–1088.

Without visual attention, even the obvious–like a gorilla walking through a scene of people–goes undetected (Mack & Rock, 1998; Simons & Chabris, 1999). This “inattentional blindness” is a persistent, well-documented limitation of the human visual system. The current research examines whether social meaning reduces this visual bias by imbuing unexpected objects with signal value, thus increasing their relevance and facilitating perception. Using one of the most established illustrations of inattentional blindness, we show for the first time that activating a social association, even an erroneous one (i.e., the African American–ape association), drastically attenuates inattentional blindness. This is not accounted for by visual feature matching. Rather, these results suggest that social meaning, even when flawed, may direct our visual system towards associated visual information that would otherwise be overlooked. As such, these results provide a powerful replication of the African American–ape association and illustrate that this broadly held association has the power to spontaneously change the content of one’s visual world.