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Blind to Our Blindness

SCENE VIVIAN enters ultra-expensive women’s clothing store in Beverly Hills.



VIVIAN Do you remember me?

SALESWOMAN No, I’m sorry.

VIVIAN I was in here yesterday. You wouldn’t wait on me.


VIVIAN You work on commission, right?


VIVIAN (Lifts large shopping bags filled with items from other clothing stores) Big mistake. Big. Huge!

I imagine many of you will recognize this dialogue from the striking scene in Pretty Woman in which Julia Roberts' character, Vivian, gives the condescending saleswoman the comeuppance she so richly deserves. For innovators, the clip is a good reminder about the dangers inherent in assessing the value of ideas based on limited and often biased information. (Books and covers and all that.) But there is less well-known scene that packs an equally valuable lesson. Let's check it out.

What did you see? Or more to the point, what did you NOT see? Did you notice what Vivian was having for breakfast? Was it a croissant or a pancake? If you're not sure, go back and watch it again.

Due to what Hollywood calls a continuity error, it seems that the answer is, both. And it appears that the pancake can magically regenerate itself between bites. (I'll have what she's having, please!) But the takeaway here is how the vast majority of people, myself included, completely missed this mistake the first time. This is primarily because what she's eating is immaterial to the scene. In other words, since we didn't need to pay attention to her dining choices to understand what was happening, we didn't. Cognitive psychologists have a name for this peculiarity of our visual system: inattentional blindness.*

To understand the impact this phenomenon has on spotting (or missing) innovation opportunities, we first need to appreciate how we actually "see." First, our eyes do not operate like HD cameras, recording and preserving every bit of detail that crosses in front of us. Instead, they act as sensors, taking in information and sending it via the optic nerve to the visual cortex portion of our brain for processing. Seems pretty straightforward so far, but here's where things get interesting. Turns out the information from the optic nerve is only one input used to determine what we "see." What we've seen in the past and what we expect to see are also factored into the equation in order to minimize the amount of effort required to make sense of what our eyes are detecting. (Our brains are nothing if not magnificent efficiency engines, conserving power wherever possible.) In addition, our brains are wired to quickly determine where we need to focus our attention and what we can ignore. Which brings us back to Vivian's breakfast. Even though we were "looking" at her, we didn't truly "see" until we decided to focus our attention on her croissant / pancake.

Fooling Houdini book cover

Inattentional blindness crops up in other contexts, as well, with more impactful results. Magicians rely on our blindness in order to entertain us. As physicist, magician, and author Alex Stone writes in Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind, we may think the sleight-of-hand tricks work because "the hand is quicker than the eye", but that's not true. The reality is it's not about where our eyes are looking, but what we're paying attention to, a subtle but important distinction. Penn & Teller's comedic "Cups and Balls" routine demonstrates this beautifully, especially when they repeat the trick after replacing their original red cups with clear, plastic ones.

On a more serious note, inattentional blindness is also the culprit behind far too many traffic accidents, especially those involving automobiles hitting pedestrians or cyclists. Even if we are looking before we turn, we may not "see" a person in the crosswalk because we're not expecting to see them. Since the vast majority of the time there is no pedestrian, our brains provide a picture reflecting that, unless we are actively looking for someone crossing the street. (By the way, if you're wondering if this form of blindness is exacerbated by talking on the phone while driving, the answer is a definitive yes, even with hands-free devices.)

So what does all of this have to do with identifying innovation opportunities? Simply this: we think we "see" a lot more than we actually do, but the truth of the matter is we "see" what we pay attention to. So as a leader, where are you focusing your attention? And what are you NOT seeing as a result? Maybe it's a pervasive customer pain point that represents a game-changing opportunity. Or perhaps there's an operational inefficiency that's been in place for so long it's simply accepted as "the way we do things around here." Or maybe you're overlooking a competitive threat from a new or non-obvious player. Regardless, it's worth reconsidering where you're looking and what you're paying attention to, as you never know what you might find hiding in plain sight.

Invisible Gorilla book cover

*For more on this subject, I highly recommend The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us, a fascinating book by experimental psychologists Daniel Simons and Christopher Chablis that sheds light on the everyday illusions that we operate under. They also posted a number of the videos they created for their experiments so you can test your own awareness and perception abilities.


(Note: This post was originally published on LinkedIn by David Phillips in December 2014.)

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