What can a gorilla teach law enforcement?

Study after study proves that we notice much less of our visual world than we think we do; how does this inattentional blindness impact police officers?

Before reading this article, watch the video below. Let me encourage you to not read below the video — it will test your perception skills and you don’t want to discover the answer prior to watching the video. Trust me. Watch first, read after. 

So, what did you think?

Studies have shown that approximately half of you who that watched the video did not see what probably seems obvious to you now. I’ve been showing a similar video in various seminars across the country for some time and have personally observed that 50 percent rate to be true.

I once thought that there was a “trick” with the video and maybe the color of the gorilla caused it to blend in, but studies were also conducted with a bright red gorilla and the results were similar. It also has nothing to do with where the students are looking. By utilizing “eye tracker” technology it was discovered that whether someone saw the gorilla or not, they still looked right at it for well over one second. Individuals actually were looking at the gorilla, but clearly many did not see it. Even fewer noticed the curtain change (11 percent) and change of players (16 percent).

The video you watched is an updated video to the original experiment conducted in 1999 by then Harvard professor Daniel Simmons and then graduate student Christopher Chabris. From a moon-walking bear commercial to highlight bicyclist safety to television shows such as “The Mentalist” using a similar video in a show promotion, the results are always the same. A significant number of people who watch the video look right at something and never see it.

You may have wondered how your favorite quarterback threw a ball right into the waiting hands of a defender or how do doctors miss obvious evidence on an x-ray.

We can get more job-specific: How does a police officer drive into another officer while in foot pursuit or hit another police car in an intersection? Why didn’t the citizen get out of your way when you are driving with lights flashing or how come you missed the weapon in plain sight when you looked in a suspect’s car and seemingly looked right at it?

You may have wondered for years how some of these things happened and while there are no doubt a myriad of reasons, I believe that much of the cause is due to what is referred to as “inattentional blindness.”

What Is Inattentional Blindness?

The phrase “inattentional blindness” was first used by Arien Mack and Irvin Rock to describe the results of their extensive studies in the visual perception of unexpected objects.

Inattentional blindness is the failure to notice a visible, but unexpected object because one’s attention was engaged on another task, event, or object.

Now Dr. Christopher Chabris is a phsychology professor at Union College in New York and Dr. Daniel Simons is a professor at the University of Illinois. Their 1999 gorilla experiment inspired the 2010 book, "The Invisible Gorilla." It is one of the most intriguing books I have read in some time and it got me thinking how this applies to law enforcement and specifically emergency vehicle operations.

Study after study proves that we notice much less of our visual world than we think we do. We can look right at something but never see it and when you combine that with high speeds, darkness and a host of other drivers with the same phenomenon occurring, does it not make sense that problems could arise?

Looking Is Not Seeing

Several years ago, two fire trucks in my city responded from different directions to the same location. Two large, red fire trucks entered the same intersection from different lanes and struck each other. I had fun telling that story until a few years later the same thing happened with two police cars. We scratch our heads and can’t understand how that happens or we scream at the citizen that do not seem to see us with our lights flashing but the reality is that often times we do not see these obvious issues because we aren’t looking for them.

Unfortunately, the cause of inattentional blindness has a lot to do with what we cannot initially control. Unexpected objects will not be noticed and from the time we can remember, we have been programmed to notice some things more than others and this is especially true in driving. You may expect to see motorcycles if you live in Sturgis but most of us do not expect to encounter motorcycles on a regular basis. If you talk to anyone that rides, they will quickly tell you of the latest “scare” they had when a driver seemingly looked right at them but then proceeded to almost hit them. The action is usually not some intentional violent act to hurt motorcyclists. It is more likely the fact that for the last few days the driver has driven that route and never once seen a motorcycle. Consequently, they were not expecting it, and therefore they were blind to what they were looking at.

Even more troubling is the fact that there is considerable data to suggest that drivers are not only not noticing critical objects that place them and others in danger but that they do not even know this deficiency exists. They don’t see it so they do not know there is a problem. Have you ever bought a new car and all of a sudden you notice the same car everywhere? The cars were always there. You just weren’t looking for them before you got your own and that leads us to what we can do to mitigate the problem with inattentional blindness.

The Solution

A study was conducted in California looking at the accident rates involving cars and pedestrians and bicyclists. The study showed that in cities where there were more pedestrians and bicyclists, they were less likely to be struck by a car. It was actually less dangerous to be a pedestrian or ride a bike in the cities where it is done the most. It wasn’t that all of these walkers and bikers were somehow safer. Those driving the cars no doubt were used to seeing them and expected to see them.

When we expect to see something, we see it. When we don’t expect something we may look right at it and never see it. It is the same reason you can look at the gorilla video again and you will see the gorilla every time even though you may have not seen it the first time you watched it. It’s the same reason a magician can show you an illusion over and over again and until you know where to look, you will never see the “trick.”

Know Your Limitations

We must become aware of this deficiency in attention if we will ever be able to overcome it. This may be easier said than done. Ask any class and most, if not all will likely say they are better than average in driving. Of course it is statistically impossible for everyone to be better than average but it proves the point that most of us (including me) probably have more confidence behind the wheel than we need. The gorilla study showed our high confidence in noticing items that we clearly will not. When shown the video and the gorilla was pointed out, over 90 percent of the participants said they would have definitely noticed the gorilla. Half of them would not have seen it.

Overconfidence is a dangerous attitude that all of us must be on guard about. If we are confident that we will see everything, we are likely to do things that will affect our attention even worse. Those activities include cell phone use, texting and computer usage. The research clearly tells us that we can have our complete attention on the roadway and still miss very important items. Any type of multi-tasking will increase the dangers exponentially.

In an interview with Seed Magazine, Dr. Simons addresses said, “That’s the intuition that’s interesting, and that’s the one that’s dangerous. If we were completely aware of these limits on attention, we wouldn’t do things like talking on cell phone while driving: We would know that it would make us just that much less likely to notice something. But we don’t have that insight into our own awareness. It’s only in that rare case where you actually have an accident that you become aware that you’ve missed something.”

Expect the Unexpected

This is easier said than done and in many respects it is impossible to do this at all times but the only way inattentional blindness can be avoided is to make the unexpected event less unexpected. Instead of not expecting the event or object we should take steps to expect it more. If you expect to see the gorilla, you will see it and if you expect the car to pull in front of you or the fire truck in the intersection, you will most likely see those as well.

The problem with expecting the unexpected is that something has to give. You can’t expect the unexpected at all times and still give all of your attention to everything. Our attention resources are limited and any attention we pay to the unexpected will take away from the attention that we have in our primary tasks.

Avoid Multi-Tasking

We are all familiar with the dangers of multi-tasking but few of us really understand it. We think that we can multi-task and as long as we are looking at the roadway, everything will be fine. That is why we see the popularity of hands-free devices but this reveals our misunderstanding of multi-tasking. The trouble does not lie in the task of looking but the attention resources that are taken away from us when we do the activity.

Driving and just about anything else we do will draw on the already limited awareness that our brain has. The more our brain does, the worse it will do each task. Our awareness is limited and the recent data showing similar dangers with hands-free devices shows us just that.

Value of Partners

Could having a partner in the car with you help mitigate the effects of inattentive blindness? A recent study confirms the problem with this phenomenon but unexpectedly could offer one solution to law enforcement. Researchers observed 317 pedestrians as they crossed the street on the campus of Western Washington University. Those observed were either talking on a cell phone, listening to a music device, walking alone, or in conversation with another pedestrian.

The walk across the street was seemingly like any other walk with the exception of the clown riding a unicycle. The clown on the unicycle was the invisible gorilla for the pedestrians. It was an unexpected event.

The study reiterates the dangers that inattentional blindness can cause. Just 25 percent of people using their phones noticed the clown, while 61 percent noticed the clown while listening to music. However, that was not the most surprising statistic. The highest percentage that noticed the clown were those walking with other pedestrians — a full 71 percent of the pedestrians that were walking with other pedestrians observed the creepy clown on a unicycle.

This is the same reason more than one person is supposed to clear your weapon at the range, or why doctors will have other doctors look at an X-ray, or why it’s a good idea to search a suspect twice using multiple officers. It may also be why having a partner with you in the passenger seat may be safer in regards to driving.


It is difficult to reduce errors due to inattentional blindness but we must strive to improve. Our driver training typically addresses the motor skills and while that is important, it is becoming obvious that the problems we face behind the wheel have less to do with the skills of driving and more to do with the attitude of driving. What goes on between our ears is much more important than what happens with our feet and hands.

We must teach others to expect the unexpected and to limit the decisions that amplify inattentional blindness. If we know that unexpected things can occur in neighborhoods or intersections then we must slow in those areas to compensate for what we may not see. If we are aware that multi-tasking takes away from the resources we need to pay attention than we must pick and choose the times we are forced to multi-task very carefully.

Driving a police car will never be a vanilla experience and as safe as your family sedan. Officers must answer the radio, search alleys and find addresses, which all will take away from the resources that are needed to keep them safe but if we embrace and understand the dangers of inattentional blindness, we can add another tool to our arsenal for officer safety.

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

Copyright © 2020 policeone.com. All rights reserved.