When you first learn about these studies they seem deeply strange. Is it really possible that we are constantly failing to notice things right in front of us? Is there some mysterious force screening what we see and what remains hidden? According to Neisser the answer is yes, we are constantly overlooking much of the world around us and no, there is nothing mysterious about it. The key is to realize that this is just what attention is: selectivity. For a brain with finite computing power, zooming in to focus on one thing always means picking up less information about everything else. That’s how we are able to concentrate on anything at all and leave behind the blooming, buzzing bundle of distraction that is the rest of the world. It is also why being absorbed in a basketball game renders us blissfully oblivious to all requests to take out the garbage. Prioritizing one thing and neglecting everything else are two sides of the same coin.Perhaps even more disturbing, Payne and his research team conducted a number of studies looking at how the brain decides what to ignore and what to focus on:
Simple selectivity cannot be the end of the story, though, because recent research suggests that we miss some unattended things more than others. That’s right – the brain is selectively selective. In new research my colleagues Jazmin Brown-Iannuzzi, Sophie Trawalter, Kelly Hoffman and I pushed the idea of selective selectivity further by asking whether the unconscious screener might have priorities of its own. Scads of studies have suggested that the unconscious mind is riddled with stereotypes and biases, even among people who are consciously well intentioned. We asked whether the unconscious screener is prejudiced.The answer to this question is, of course, yes. Our unconscious biases and prejudices dramatically structure our consciousness in ways that we are completely unaware of:
This simple two-step comparison can explain why emotional events like dangerous and sexy things break through, because goals as basic as having sex and not being eaten are always relevant. It is not yet clear how sophisticated the screener can be. Our findings of racial bias, however, suggest something new about the assumptions the unconscious makes. At a minimum, our findings imply that the unconscious can represent social goals such as looking for a friend, a date, or a co-worker. And it seems to have opinions about which kind of people are suitable for each. These kinds of distinctions are more sophisticated, and perhaps more disturbing, than we had assumed.The upshot of all this is that we must constantly question many of the assumptions we make about the world, and realize that our personal experience of the world may be highly unreliable because of all these unconscious biases that structure how we perceive it.