Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris at Harvard University conducted one of the most famous experiments on attention in 2010. They made a short film of two teams of their students, dressed in either black or white, who passed a basketball back and forth between themselves. They then asked students from around campus to watch the video and count how many passes the players dressed in white made. After the experiment, the participants were asked if they had seen anything unusual or odd during the video, or if they’d seen anyone other than the players. More than half of the participants had their attention misdirected.
In another experiment taken straight from the pages of Candid Camera, Daniel Simons and Daniel Levin arranged for a researcher to approach pedestrians on a college campus and ask for directions to a particular building. While the pedestrian and the researcher conferred over the researcher’s map, two construction workers, each holding one end of a large door, rudely cut between them, temporarily obstructing the pedestrian’s view of the researcher. As the construction workers passed, the original researcher crouched down behind the door and walked off with the construction workers, while a new researcher, who had been hiding behind the door all along, took his place and picked up the conversation. The original and substitute researchers were of different heights and builds and had noticeably different voices, haircuts and clothing. You would have no trouble telling them apart if they were standing side by side. So what did the Good Samaritans who had stopped to help a lost tourist make of this switcheroo? Not much. In fact, most of the pedestrians failed to notice–failed to notice that the person to whom they were talking had suddenly been transformed into an entirely new individual.