More than 15 years ago, Boston police officer Kenny Conley responded to a murder scene. It was 2 in the morning on a dark winter night as Conley ran after a suspect who was hopping a fence to get away. He chased down and nabbed the suspect only to be questioned later about whether he saw a vicious beating between fellow officers and a plainclothes policeman, who was mistaken for a fleeing suspect.
Conley was so focused on nailing the suspect that he told investigators he hadn't seen the brutal assault, although he admittedly ran by the location where it took place. No one believed him -- including a jury -- who found him guilty of perjury and obstruction of justice.
While his accusers found it hard to believe that Conley hadn't noticed the incident, two psychology professors who study the phenomenon known as inattentional blindness believe Conley may well have been telling the truth. His innocence could be a result of inattentional blindness, or failing to see something unexpected because you're paying attention to something else.
In the heat of the moment, might Conley have missed seeing the "obvious" because his single-minded focus was on nailing the bad guy? Had this tunnel vision blinded him from spotting other things, including a fight? (Conley's conviction would eventually be overturned on a technicality.)
The scientists set out to test whether these explanations were plausible, and their findings appear in the online journal i-Perception.
While you can't recreate the unknown dangers of a crime scene in real life, they tried to simulate the concentration and demands involved in the chase. They rounded up 20 college students as volunteers and performed a series of experiments.
Instead of an adrenaline-fueled pursuit of a criminal, participants were asked to hightail it after a runner and count the number of times he touched his head with either hand. Along the route, slightly off to the side, researchers staged a make-believe pummeling complete with shouts and grunts. Afterward, they asked each participant for the head-touch count, whether they had noticed anything unusual while running, and if they had seen a skirmish.
When the experiment was done at night -- the same situation as Officer Conley -- 65 percent of participants missed seeing the fight. In a daytime simulation, 44 percent missed it.
"I was genuinely surprised that we were observing inattentional blindness under conditions like those experienced by Kenny Conley as he chased a suspect in Boston," says Christopher Chabris, an assistant professor of psychology at Union College in Schenectady, NY and the study's lead author.
"We notice less than we think we do, just as we don't remember things as well as we think we do," he explains. "And when someone else says they didn't notice something -- or remembers it differently from the way you do, make room for the possibility that the other person is being honest."
Since few of us routinely tail murder suspects, what practical applications might this study have?
"Being aware of the possibility of inattentional blindness should make us think twice before we try to do two, three, or four attention-demanding things at once," says Chabris. Doing this almost inevitably results in worse performance than if you did them one at a time, he suggests. "In other words, multitasking is a myth."
So says the scientist -- but how do you think you are at multitasking? Tell us about about your latest, greatest multitasking fail (or win!).