On Learning to See
To see what is in front of one’s nose needs constant struggle. – George Orwell
When I was in law school, one of my professors told me about a rather interesting psychological study. The participants in the study were taken to a basketball game and told to try and keep track of the number of times the ball was passed in the game from one person to another. During the game, a man in a giant bee costume was brought out onto the court, and danced around a bit while the game was going on. The interesting thing (and the real purpose of the study) was that after the game, many of the participants had no recollection of a guy in a giant bee costume coming onto the court. They were so focused on one thing (keeping track of the number of passes) that they did not notice what was right there for anyone to see.
This same sort of thing is the secret behind a great many magic acts. By drawing attention to one thing – a loud noise, a puff of smoke, a flash of light, or even a strange incantation – a magician is often able to put of illusions that, if carefully attended to, would be seen as obvious frauds. It is called misdirection, and it works so well because, as the study above shows, when a person’s attention is drawn to one aspect of a situation, it can be difficult for him to see anything else.
It is my contention that our thinking about political, social, and economic issues is often subject to a similar effect. It is not that people are misled by the political equivalent of magicians (though this does happen) so much as that certain features of social life are, for lack of a better word, more flashy than others. They attract our attention and draw focus away from other equally important realities, ultimately giving us a distorted picture of the world. In what I hope to be an occasional series here at Vox Nova, I hope to expound on this subject further, and to give examples of what I think our blind spots are, and how we can correct for them.