How not to be seen: the contribution of similarity and selective ignoring to sustained inattentional blindness

Psychol Sci. 2001 Jan;12(1):9-17. doi: 10.1111/1467-9280.00303.


When people attend to objects or events in a visual display, they often fail to notice an additional, unexpected, but fully visible object or event in the same display. This phenomenon is now known as inattentional blindness. We present a new approach to the study of sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events in order to explore the roles of similarity, distinctiveness, and attentional set in the detection of unexpected objects. In Experiment 1, we found that the similarity of an unexpected object to other objects in the display influences attentional capture: The more similar an unexpected object is to the attended items, and the greater its differencefrom the ignored items, the more likely it is that people will notice it. Experiment 2 explored whether this effect of similarity is driven by selective ignoring of irrelevant items or by selective focusing on attended items. The results of Experiment 3 suggest that the distinctiveness of the unexpected object alone cannot entirely account for the similarity effects found in the first two experiments; when attending to black items or white items in a dynamic display, nearly 30% of observers failed to notice a bright red cross move across the display, even though it had a unique color, luminance, shape, and motion trajectory and was visible for 5s. Together, the results suggest that inattentional blindness for ongoing dynamic events depends both on the similarity of the unexpected object to the other objects in the display and on the observer's attentional set.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attention*
  • Cognition*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Visual Perception*