Do Elderly People See the Gorilla? Effects of Aging on Inattentional Blindness

Do Elderly People See the Gorilla? Effects of Aging on Inattentional Blindness

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In 1995, a Boston police officer responded to a 911 call regarding a shooting. Spotting a potential suspect he gave chase. During the pursuit the officer ran by an assault in progress without stopping to assist the victim. Later, he would claim that he never saw the assault because he was focused on chasing his suspect (Chabris, Weinberger, Fontaine & Simmons, 2011). This is an example of inattentional blindness or the failure to perceive objects or events when attention is focused elsewhere (Mack & Rock, 1998). Parents distracted by children, teenagers talking on cellphones and even professionals trained to be observant of their environment can fall prey to this phenomenon. Though people are not susceptible to inattentional blindness to the same degree, it is feasible that some may be less susceptible due to difficulties staying focused on a task at hand. This paper will examine the possibility that elderly people are less susceptible to inattentional blindness due to a decrease in attention skills.
Though the term “inattentional blindness” would not be conceived until 1998, the concept itself is not new. As cited by Simons and Chabris, Hungarian neurologist and psychiatrist Rezso Balint wrote in 1907 “It is a well-known phenomenon that we do not notice anything happening in our surroundings while being absorbed in the inspection of something…” (1999). Using the term “selective looking,” Ulric Neisser, an American psychologist, demonstrated this idea in 1979. In his study, he instructed subjects to count the number of times a group of participants threw a basketball to each other. While the subjects were focused on this attention demanding task, a woman with an umbrella walked in the middle of the participants. At th...


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...s. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
McCarley, J. S., Mounts, J. R. W., & Kramer, A. F. (2004). Age-related differences in localized attentional interference. Psychology and Aging, 19(1), 203-210. doi: 10.10370882-7974.19.1.203
Neisser, U. (1979). The control of information pickup in selective looking. In A. D. Pick (Ed.), Perception and its Development: A Tribute to Eleanor J. Gibson (pp. 201-219). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Rizzo, M., Sparks, J., McEvoy, S., Viamonte, S., Kellison, I., & Vecera, S. (2009). Change blindness, aging, and cognition. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 31(2), 245-256. doi: 10.1080/13803390802279668
Simons, D. J. & Chabris, C. F. (1999). Gorillas in our midst: Sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events. Perception 28, 1059-1074. Retrieved from http://coglab.wjh.harvard.edu/~cfc/Simons1999.pdf

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