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Change Blindness in the Real World

Kevin Gao
Psych 1140
Simons and Levin (1997) introduced a controversial topic: though it appears that humans
are able to retain visual information about our environment, in reality people will often times
miss changes in visual stimuli, whether they be subtle or obvious. This is called change
blindness, and this is discussed in depth in Simons and Levin (1998). In this essay, we will
examine how the two authors have taken the study of this phenomenon from the motion-picture
setting (Simons and Levin (1997)) to a real world situation, as well as providing new insight into
how efficiently our optical system really works.
Being a more recent paper, Simons and Levin (1998) cited Simons and Levin (1997)
multiple times to address some of the shortcomings of previous experiments, particularly the one
about testing change blindness while watching motion pictures. The authors determined that
the previous studies of change blindness did not produce sufficient results because the subjects
were exposed to the experimental scenes through the use of photographs, computer displays, and
television monitors as mediums. Simons and Levin claimed that motion pictures do not fully
assess our ability to represent objects in the real world, mostly due to the fact that motion
pictures are viewed passively without the need for full attendance to real objects, as well as the
effect of editing techniques that reduce our ability to detect changes.
In the 1998 essay, Simons and Levin decide to tackle the problem in question by devising
a new experiment. Since changes in mediated stimuli were indeed too subtle for people to notice,
Simons and Levin (1998) decided to use a substitution of one person for another in the middle of
a conversation (via switching behind an obscuring door), which they hypothesized would be
clearly noticeable. Right from the start, one can tell that this is a good essay that somewhat
follows the scientific method, which is generally to assert a hypothesis, construct an experiment,
and then collect data to formulate conclusions.
As elegant as the results seem to be at the end, it is possible that Simons and Levin could
have improved their 1998 experiment as well. The first experiment featured 15 pedestrians,
ranging from 20 to 65 years of age. Only 7 out of the 15 test subjects reported noticing the
change, and one person who did not notice any change claimed to have seen the change when

asked directly by the experimenters. The ones that noticed the switch were all students ranging
from 20 to 30 years old, and the ones that failed to noticed the change were older (35-65 years
old). In the second experiment, only 12 people were tested in the experiment, and all were from
the younger age group, and the two construction workers that would switch places were now
dressed differently with obvious alterations in clothing and utility. Only 4 of the 12 people
reported noticing the switch this time. 3 other subjects reported noticing nothing different but
then claimed to have seen the change later.
Reported data based on such small sample sizes is not the most accurate way to represent
the phenomenon, and we cannot draw firm conclusions as to what causes this failure to detect
change. If possible, I would like to see this experiment repeated with more trials, and with more
subjects in each trial, to get a better set of data in order to create a more generalized conclusion.
In their defense, Simons and Levins did infer the test data to be the result of multiple
psychological principles at work, taking into account how different social standards and
situations could compel people to behave differently, such as the fact that the simple action of
giving directions draws the focus away from the experimenter and towards the interaction or
conversation about the problem matter.
Experiment 2 was created to test the hypothesis generated from the first experiment. One
factor that couldve affected the test subjects perception of the change was that the younger
pedestrians would more likely pay more attention to the two experimenters because they were
roughly from the same age group as they were, whereas the older pedestrians probably didnt
attempt to encode the experimenters fully and viewed them as people from another social group.
This in-group/ out-group psychology suggests that people who meet others from the same social
group as them, or the in-group, tend to pay more attention to personal or external features,
while people from an out-group are encoded based more upon the attributes associated with that
other social group. The social psychology does have causal merit, however its effects seem to be
overshadowed by including a more direct social scenario, such as the decision to inform the
subjects of the switch immediately after each trial was completed seemed to obscure the data, In
the second experiment, even though the reader could be led to believe the proposed in-group/
out-group theory, the entire notion of this social construct is ruined by the outcomes of the 33%
of younger kids noticing the change; had the subjects not been informed of the switch, it is

possible that they might not have been so quick to respond with the apparently required answer
that people would expect to hear.
So besides sample sizes being too small and uncertainty of the factors of change
blindness, standard debriefing methods, when not applied adequately, can also serve to alter the
results of the experiment. My suggestions are that for any future experiments regarding change
blindness, there should be larger sample sizes for the experimenters to conduct the test on so as
to get a higher chance of obtaining the actual results, and with more trials, a higher sample size
allows us to detect differences among the trials more efficiently. I would try to include more
possible causal reasons than just listing one previously explored social construct to explain this
phenomenon, perhaps cite more past sources related to change or edit blindness. And lastly, I
would definitely revise the debriefing methods use in the experiments, because any sort of
interaction between the test subject and the experimenters could prematurely indicate to the
subject that something is out of the ordinary.
As personal thoughts, I felt that the general discussion was very informative. The authors
provide general guidelines/ heuristics for identifying changes that are worth noticing as opposed
to inconsequential ones. However, these guidelines seem unreliable, because even though the
experiment followed all of the criteria, there were still some cases where the change was
undetected. The discussion should elaborate on the effects of distractions in a conversation, as
attention is what creates the minds perception more than sensory intake, and more importantly,
the discussion should try to provide some sort of insight into future experiments meant to test
these four heuristics; simply stating rules without references, back up information, or any test
results is not a strong argument for the essay. To answer some of the open-ended questions, I
would simply create more experiments to follow the suggestions that Ive listed beforehand, as
well as cite more material that would provide more evidence for other outside psychological
theories or instances.