Miss Something Obvious? Your Brain Might Be Working

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Have you ever searched everywhere for your keys when they were right in front of you? Or missed a bug when it was staring out at you? If so, relax. Missing the obvious is a common problem.

Alejandro Lleras, a professor of psychology who has studied what he calls the science of missing the obvious, found that when the brain has been affected by previous events, it creates biases against certain images it deems distracting. It’s the brain’s way of searching and sorting.

For example, if (as in one of his experiments), you’re told to find a picture of a face among flashing images of houses, your brain will create a bias against images of houses so it can spot the face. If you’re next asked to find the picture of a house among flashing images of faces, you’re more likely to miss the house because of the bias that carries over from the previous test.

This helps explain those seemingly missing keys: Once you look in a particular place, your brain creates a bias against looking there again. So, you look right at the keys and don’t see them.

A second possible cause of missing the obvious is being distracted or misled by the context. In an experiment a few years ago, Joshua Bell, an accomplished violinist, put on a cap, entered a Washington DC Metro station with his violin, took a position near a trash can, and played for the commuters. A few people tossed coins into his case; most ignored him. Yet, a few days earlier, he had performed to a packed house at Symphony Hall in Boston, where the average seat cost $100.

Finally, a third possible cause of missing the obvious: We often do things the same old way because that's how we learned to do them—even when there's a simpler way. In his book, Why We Make Mistakes, Joseph Hallinan describes an experiment in which researchers gave people the following problem:

  • Jar A holds 21 cups of water.
  • Jar B holds 127 cups of water.
  • Jar C holds 3 cups of water.

The challenge? How would you get exactly 100 cups of water?

Can you figure it out?

The solution:

  1. Pour Jar B into Jar A until it's full, leaving 106 cups in Jar B.
  2. Pour Jar B into Jar C until it's full, leaving 103 cups in Jar B.
  3. Empty Jar C, and again pour Jar B into Jar C until it's full.
  4. You now have exactly 100 cups of water in Jar B.

The researchers had subjects solve several problems that followed the same pattern—Jar B into Jar A once, then Jar B into Jar C twice.

Then they posed a new problem, such as:

  • Jar A holds 14 cups
  • Jar B holds 36 cups
  • Jar C holds 8 cups

The challenge: How would you get exactly 6 cups of water?

Almost everyone followed the same pattern as before (did you?), even though a much simpler solution existed.

But, get this: When the researchers gave this second problem to people who had not worked on the first set of problems, almost all of them figured out the simpler solution: Pour Jar A into Jar C. Voilà, you're left with 6 cups in Jar A.

Clearly, if you become set in your ways, you risk becoming blinded to newer or simpler ways of doing things. That’s a conclusion that’s too obvious to miss.

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Naomi Karten

Naomi Karten is a writer and speaker who draws from her background in both psychology and IT. Naomi's recent books are Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals and Changing How You Manage and Communicate Change. Readers have described her newsletter, Perceptions and Realities, as lively, informative, and a breath of fresh air. Naomi is a regular columnist for StickyMinds.com.