Young Investor

Looking without seeing

B. Venkatesh | Updated on June 18, 2011

Road accidents often occur due to lack of attention.

Road accidents are a regular occurrence. The cause is typically attributed to “technical fault” or to reckless driving. But as behavioural psychologists point out, it is often our inattention to detail that causes accidents.

‘Inattentional blindness'

In a classic experiment, subjects were asked to watch a short video of a basketball game and count the number of passes made by one team. The subjects got the number correctly but most did not notice a person dressed as a gorilla walk into the play area, dance and then leave the court. The subjects were apparently busy counting the passes and failed to notice the gorilla!

Researchers called this “Inattentional blindness”. It refers to looking without seeing. You may gaze at a particular object but not actually absorb its features. This is especially true when we do not expect to see an object such as a gorilla in a basketball court!

Road accidents

How does this relate to road accidents? Bus drivers are normally cautious. A driver usually anticipates a swerving car or a heavy truck coming his way. But he typically does not expect a speeding motorcycle to cross his path, especially on a highway. And when such an event happens, he does not “see” the motorcycle. Warning signs do not always help in this regard. If no motorcyclist shows up for a while, the bus driver's visual expectations are reset. This is because our brain is built to detect patterns automatically. In a highway, the pattern is to see more cars and fewer motorcycles.

The same is true for investments too. You may read reports suggesting possible fall in stock prices. But what happens when you see series of price increases? Your mind automatically resets to the pattern. And when a bellwether stock crashes, you may not really “see” the signal.

When the unexpected happens, the uniqueness of the event does not necessarily mean we will notice it. This means you can fail to “see” even if you are a good driver or a competent investor.

(The author is the founder of Navera Consulting. He can be reached at >

Published on June 18, 2011

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