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Change Blindness: Examples and Definition

Christina Keathley, David White
  • Author
    Christina Keathley

    Christina graduated with a Master's in biology from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. She is a current PhD student in biology at Wake Forest University, and has been teaching undergraduate students anatomy and physiology for the last two years.

  • Instructor
    David White
Explore change blindness and its definition. Learn what change blindness is and compare it with inattentional blindness. See change blindness examples. Updated: 12/28/2021

What is Change Blindness?

To understand Change Blindness, look at this example. Stella is watching a movie with her mother. Halfway through the movie, during a particularly serious scene, Stella is appalled to hear her mother laugh. When asked why, her mother stated, "Did the directors really think no one would notice that the main character's tie suddenly changes from red to blue?" Confused, Stella rewinds the scene and watches it again. To her surprise, the protagonist's tie is red in one moment and blue in the next.

Stella experienced a phenomenon called change blindness. So, what is change blindness? Change blindness is the inability to detect minor changes that occur within the visual field. More simply put, it occurs when an individual does not notice a change in something they're actively watching. In many instances, these changes are obvious and apparent after being pointed out, as they were for Stella after she rewatched part of the movie.

This lesson explores change blindness examples and answers the following questions:

  • What are real-world examples of change blindness?
  • What are the differences between change blindness and inattentional blindness?
  • Why does change blindness occur?

What Is Change Blindness?

Have you ever been so engrossed in a conversation at a party that you failed to notice that someone new is standing only six inches away from you, trying to get your attention? It's possible that you were so distracted that you didn't notice someone approaching you. But it's also entirely likely that you were experiencing change blindness.

Change blindness is a phenomenon that occurs when a person is unable to notice visual changes in their environment, despite the fact that they are often rather obvious. In cases of change blindness, the person isn't failing to notice small or insignificant changes, but will probably miss big changes, like someone standing next to them waving their hand.

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  • 0:02 What Is Change Blindness?
  • 0:44 Experiments
  • 1:40 Inattentional Blindness
  • 2:57 Causes
  • 4:25 Importance
  • 5:18 Lesson Summary
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Change Blindness Examples

Change blindness is a common experience that occurs in life. Individuals who have experienced change blindness will never know unless the change is directly pointed out or seen later. Explore change blindness examples to understand when and where this phenomenon may occur.


Michael's Goldfish

Michael went out of town one weekend and asked his friend Frank to watch his house for him. Frank agreed and stayed a few nights at Michael's, making sure his plants were watered, his cat was fed, and the house was secure. The day before Michael returned, he called Frank and asked how his pet fish was doing. Frank, caught off guard, said that his fish was doing just fine. After the phone call, Fran frantically searched the house for a fish he hadn't realized existed. When he came across the small tank in the corner of Michael's office, the fish was already dead. Instead of telling his friend, Frank went to a local pet store and got a new fish. When Michael got home, he did not see the difference between this new fish and his old fish, even though they were not completely identical. Months later, a guilt-riddled Frank admitted to Michael what had happened. When Michael looked at his fish afterward, he noticed that this new fish was a slightly different color and had differently shaped fins.

Michael had experienced change blindness. Even though his fish had been swapped out with a somewhat different fish, Michael had not anticipated a change and thus never noticed it. It wasn't until his friend Frank confessed that Michael began to notice the differences.


Rosie's Testimony

Rosie gave testimony as a witness in a robbery. She stated that she had seen a man rob a convenience store at gunpoint. The defense attorney offered Rosie a blurry picture that had been taken from the security cameras that night and asked Rosie if the man in the picture was the man she had seen. Rosie examined the photo and stated that, even though the photo was blurry, she was confident the men were the same. The defense attorney then stated that the photo had been tampered with and the man's clothes changed. Based on this, he asked the jury to reconsider how accurate Rosie's memory truly was.

Rosie had experienced change blindness. Even though she was focusing on a photo taken on a night, she was present, and she was unable to see the differences in the clothes the man was wearing. Because of this, she stated that the man in the photo appeared the same as the man she had seen. While Rosie's identification could have been accurate, the defense attorney had used Rosie's change blindness to discredit her testimony.


Failure to notice the differences between this flag and the official flag of the United Kingdom is an example of change blindness.

An incorrect flag of the United Kingdom.


Change Blindness vs Inattentional Blindness

Another type of unaware blindness that occurs is inattentional blindness. Inattentional blindness occurs when a person is focusing on another task and thus doesn't notice the changes that take place around them. As with change blindness, changes that occur during inattentional blindness are often obvious after being pointed out. Choosing to focus on one stimulus and filtering out others is called attentional selection. In order to understand the difference between blindness versus inattentional blindness, it's important to consider where the observer's focus is at. In inattentional blindness, change typically occurs when someone's focus is elsewhere, such as paying attention to a complicated task. In change blindness, that individual may not be highly focused on something else, but the change still occurs unnoticed.


Example of Inattentional Blindness

Fatima is babysitting an infant and a toddler. During a diaper change, Fatima finds herself struggling to put the infant's new diaper on. No matter what she tries, the baby manages to cry, squirm, and wiggle away. In order to get the new diaper on, Fatima concentrates hard on anticipating the infant's movements. While she struggles with the diaper change, the toddler in front of her manages to take off his shirt, flip it inside out, and put it on backward. Even after Fatima successfully completes the diaper change, she doesn't notice the toddler's clothes have changed until his mother asks what happened upon coming home. Because Fatima's attention was pulled strongly to a particular task while the change occurred, she experienced change blindness where she did not notice the difference in clothing.


Experiments

Early experiments with change blindness focused largely on memory and perception when viewing pictures. For example, a person might be shown a photograph of a street scene in Egypt and told to memorize the image. Following that, they would be shown the same picture with certain elements added or taken away and asked to identify what's different. Very often the individual could recall the larger aspects of the picture but couldn't recognize the smaller changes.

An inability to recognize every change in a crowded or complicated picture is generally attributed to the brain's capacity to remember complex images in a broad scope. For example, they might remember looking at a picture of a crowded street with stores and restaurants, but they probably wouldn't notice that the names of the stores had changed. In general, this is because the brain cannot possibly process every element of an experience and has to prioritize what it believes to be important.

Inattentional Blindness

In the 1990s, researcher Daniel Simons conducted a fascinating study into change blindness that many people find unbelievable. In Simons' study, he asked participants to watch a video of a basketball being passed around between several people, with a particular focus on the basketball itself. When the experiment was over, Simons found that a large number of participants were so focused on watching the basketball being passed around that they failed to notice a man in a gorilla suit jumping around in front of the camera.

It's important to note that the change in Simons' video wasn't subtle. The gorilla is very obviously taking up much of the frame. Simons concluded that participants were experiencing inattentional blindness, which is when a person fails to notice a major change because they are so focused on another task. In this case, because participants were asked to focus on the movement of the basketball, their brains prioritized that task in order to do it properly, thereby missing the other things happening in the video.

In the case of Simons' study, participants engaged what's referred to as attentional selection, which is when a person selects certain things to focus on in order to achieve a task and filters out anything that is unrelated to the objective.

Causes

There are a number of theories about what causes a person's inability to recognize obvious changes in their environment, but most agree that the phenomenon is related to sensory processing. Broadly speaking, our brains have a limited capacity to detect and process everything in our environment. Instead, what the brain does is choose certain things to process, evaluate, and store, which allows other things to be missed or filtered out.

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Video Transcript

What Is Change Blindness?

Have you ever been so engrossed in a conversation at a party that you failed to notice that someone new is standing only six inches away from you, trying to get your attention? It's possible that you were so distracted that you didn't notice someone approaching you. But it's also entirely likely that you were experiencing change blindness.

Change blindness is a phenomenon that occurs when a person is unable to notice visual changes in their environment, despite the fact that they are often rather obvious. In cases of change blindness, the person isn't failing to notice small or insignificant changes, but will probably miss big changes, like someone standing next to them waving their hand.

Experiments

Early experiments with change blindness focused largely on memory and perception when viewing pictures. For example, a person might be shown a photograph of a street scene in Egypt and told to memorize the image. Following that, they would be shown the same picture with certain elements added or taken away and asked to identify what's different. Very often the individual could recall the larger aspects of the picture but couldn't recognize the smaller changes.

An inability to recognize every change in a crowded or complicated picture is generally attributed to the brain's capacity to remember complex images in a broad scope. For example, they might remember looking at a picture of a crowded street with stores and restaurants, but they probably wouldn't notice that the names of the stores had changed. In general, this is because the brain cannot possibly process every element of an experience and has to prioritize what it believes to be important.

Inattentional Blindness

In the 1990s, researcher Daniel Simons conducted a fascinating study into change blindness that many people find unbelievable. In Simons' study, he asked participants to watch a video of a basketball being passed around between several people, with a particular focus on the basketball itself. When the experiment was over, Simons found that a large number of participants were so focused on watching the basketball being passed around that they failed to notice a man in a gorilla suit jumping around in front of the camera.

It's important to note that the change in Simons' video wasn't subtle. The gorilla is very obviously taking up much of the frame. Simons concluded that participants were experiencing inattentional blindness, which is when a person fails to notice a major change because they are so focused on another task. In this case, because participants were asked to focus on the movement of the basketball, their brains prioritized that task in order to do it properly, thereby missing the other things happening in the video.

In the case of Simons' study, participants engaged what's referred to as attentional selection, which is when a person selects certain things to focus on in order to achieve a task and filters out anything that is unrelated to the objective.

Causes

There are a number of theories about what causes a person's inability to recognize obvious changes in their environment, but most agree that the phenomenon is related to sensory processing. Broadly speaking, our brains have a limited capacity to detect and process everything in our environment. Instead, what the brain does is choose certain things to process, evaluate, and store, which allows other things to be missed or filtered out.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What are the causes of change blindness?

Change blindness occurs because a person is unable to pay attention to everything around them at one time. Age, attention disorders, and drug use may influence someone's likelihood of experiencing change blindness.

What is a real life example of change blindness?

A kid's pet goldfish died one day while she was at school. Her parents replaced her fish with a similar fish, which had minor differences from the original one. The kid never noticed it was a different fish and thus experienced change blindness.

What is change blindness and why is it important?

Change blindness occurs when a person does not notice an otherwise noticeable change in something they observe. Change blindness is essential because individuals may miss critical changes in their surroundings (like a missing safety feature), resulting in severe consequences, including injury.

What is the difference between change blindness and inattentional blindness?

Change blindness occurs because individuals are unable to pay attention to every aspect of their surroundings. Inattentional blindness occurs when individuals focus heavily on a single thing, making them less aware of other events in their surroundings.

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