Fooled by familiarity

I’ve long had a fascination with illusion. The subject of change blindness excites me; it impacts upon many aspects of existence.

A thread on Learning from Dogs the other day reminded me again of this phenomenon. An understanding of how reluctantly our senses acknowledge incremental alteration might help explain many things, such as: how we continue to believe that although advertising may affect others, it doesn’t affect us (even though billions are spent introducing such intrusive brainwashing crap into our ‘choice’ of goggle-box watching — why would they do that if it didn’t work?); or how we continue to accept the argument that ‘economic growth’ is a worthy pursuit when all the evidence shows that all it does is destroy the world in which we live; or how we welcome the arrival of new technologies even as they further accentuate the divide between us and nature; or… how we came to be facing a crisis-laden future without noticing it sneaking up on us in plain sight.


Yo, dudes!!111 My mate blogged some great photos that got me thinking about just how easy it is to frack things up even with the bestest intentions.

The big question is, given that we’re physiologically incapable of recognising small incremental change, is an understanding of this fact in any way helpful? To amend our behaviour, we would need know exactly what changes have occurred: Catch 22.

[To continue the descent into lunacy, check out ‘change blindness blindness‘ (PDF).]

About peNdantry

Phlyarologist (part-time) and pendant. Campaigner for action against anthropogenic global warming (AGW) and injustice in all its forms. Humanist, atheist, notoftenpist. Wannabe poet, writer and astronaut.
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13 Responses to Fooled by familiarity

  1. Jackie Saulmon Ramirez says:

    Hmm… interesting.


  2. Appreciate the link across to LfD. That short ‘spot the change’ video is fascinating, and very instructional.


  3. Hariod Brawn says:

    You are doubtless aware of the even more startling demonstration of our attentional deficiencies. Focus really hard now everyone:


    • pendantry says:

      An excellent example, one that sits well with the topic at hand. Thank you, my friend!


    • colinc says:

      Hariod Brawn, I concur with pendantry that THAT is an excellent, and will add more apt, example of one’s inability to notice certain “extraneous” things when one’s “focus” is elsewhere. Again, personally I did NOT notice the gorilla however I DID notice that “the group” seemed to become “more complex” for a few seconds, while counting “white shirt passes” accurately. However, yet again, this can be attributed, at least partially, to “priming” or “pre-programming” the observer. I think a better “test” would be something more open-ended like, “watch the following video and describe what you see, for example how many passes of the ball were made and by whom.” The way the video/question is presented “pre-disposes” the viewer to concentrate/focus on passes made by people wearing white shirts which creates a bias that obviates the video’s intended point (and I won’t claim that my “more open-ended” phraseology is necessarily “better”). At least, that’s the way I see it and THAT is the way that people are purposefully conditioned to believe that there is “freedom” in choices that have been artificially constrained. Regardless, thank you for yet more evidence that the ONLY way “our” species has survived and, ahem, thrived as long as it has is a matter of sheer dumb luck. I have monumental doubts it will continue much longer.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. colinc says:

    How and where do I start? I guess “the beginning” (from my perspective) is as appropriate as anywhere else. First, I’ve found your comments (here and elsewhere) and articles (what few I’ve read/viewed, so far) to be, by and large, rather astute and thoughtful (i.e., well reasoned). Additionally, I’ve found your few glimmers of “grammatical pedantry” (yes, I know your moniker includes an “extraneous” ‘n’) rather refreshing. (By all means, parse this comment at your discretion.) You appear to have “grokked” R.A. Heinlein (“Moderation is for monks. Life’s too short, take big bites.” Lazarus Long, “Time Enough for Love”) and Douglas Adams (“So Long and Thanks for All the Fish” being the “best” of the original 3, IMNSHO). These aspects and more seem indicative of “true” sentience (whatever the hell that is). However, I have a couple of quibbles about your “wibble” on this particular piece (among others).

    Foremost, while your declaration of “Fooled by familiarity” has more than a little merit, the first video-clip in this article (“Gradual Change Test 1”) compels me to call shenanigans! I’ll not go into all the “whys” here but will merely state that the initial “warning” that a change is going to happen then presents a scene with many “features” to capture one’s attention sets up a psychological, and perhaps visual, “resonance” (for lack of a better word) that will preclude many, if not all, from seeing the “artificial” change that takes place. Furthermore, the artificial change that is presented is NOT something that could be “expected” in such a “natural” environment. Make no mistake, I’m NOT even implying that the initial assertion (that “people” are “fooled by familiarity”) is in any way false, just that this is a damn poor example of such. If anyone is “wondering,” NO, I did not observe the change until it was made apparent. Regardless, I think the “real” perspective is that the overwhelming amount of information that anyone and everyone is confronted with on a moment-by-moment basis is “impossible” to fully assimilate and THAT is how biases and beliefs are instilled, shaped and controlled, usually for the benefit of someone other than the observer.

    All the above notwithstanding, the BEST (and probably most ignored and least “understood”) part was the Monty Python clip regarding people “not wearing enough hats.” If taken literally, which most will almost certainly do, makes little to no sense other than its “comedic” implications. However, from MY perspective (having worn MANY hats in a metaphorical sense), that is a, if not “THE,” primary factor of the woes afflicting this world today. Far too few people have any “real” experience or knowledge about the “world,” beyond a “few” niche interests, in which they (we) live. People, for more than a few decades, have been compartmentalized (programmed, pigeon-holed and played) for one or more “reasons” (this list would be long) and, as a result, many “know” a lot (at least they believe they do) about very little while having little to no knowledge of everything else. Now I see this comment has become much longer than I’d initially intended so will stop. If you or anyone else wish to discuss any of my assertions further, well, I’m guessing you’ll know what to do. (But I won’t be in the least “surprised” if you do not.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • pendantry says:


      First off: welcome to ‘Wibble’. I hope you enjoy your time here, and I very much look forward to more input from you! :)

      Now then, let’s see, what next, um… thank you for the ego-boosting comments. These are always much appreciated (it’s difficult to make an enemy of someone whose children you admire). I’m particularly glad that you find my pendantry (by which I mean ‘pedantry expressed in a manner that attempts to acknowledge the possibility of error’) ‘refreshing’!

      Yes, I am very much a fan of the work of messrs. Heinlein and Adams. Geniuses, both, in very different ways. You’ve given me the urge to re-read both of the books you cite. I’m astonished, by the way, that TEfL* hasn’t yet been turned into a movie. Although… I wonder whether anyone could ever do it justice. Perhaps not… Though I do enjoy the ‘Starship Troopers’ film, for instance, as is often the case it pales into insignificance next to the book. I keep hoping, in this time of remakes, that someone will re-do that in a way that does it right (the ‘M’ in ‘MI’ doesn’t mean ‘yes, we can walk’!) Not to mention TMIAHM… that yarn’s just begging to be put up on the silver screen. Oh, and SC/TDAT… I better stop that now ;)

      Concerning your quibbling on my wibbling: your misgivings about the artificial nature of the change in ‘Gradual Change Test 1’ seem very fair comment, to me. I completely agree that it’s impossible for one to assimilate every last iota of information that our senses perceive. Particularly fascinating, as it’s tied in with the whole rabbit hole of consciousness… as I understand it, our eyes are physically incapable of ‘seeing’ any more than a tiny portion of what appears to be our field of view; the rest is a construct applied by our brains, leading us to believe that we see everything in front of us, when in reality we simply don’t.

      However, you say:

      […] the artificial change that is presented is NOT something that could be “expected” in such a “natural” environment.

      I see what you’re getting at, but I think I have to take issue with that. In part on the grounds that watching a video in a web browser can hardly be considered a ‘natural environment’ for the human animal. Mostly, though, I’d argue that it could be a metaphor for one of the main reasons that we don’t notice gradual change as it creeps up on us: the end result is often something that we wouldn’t have anticipated at the outset. It’s thus not ‘natural’ at all: which might explain why our minds take so long to recognise that it’s happened (even assuming we do ever actually admit this to ourselves).

      All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.
      Arthur Schopenhauer

      You accuse ‘Gradual Change Test 1’ of being a ‘damn poor example’ and say “I’ll not go into all the “whys” here”: this just makes me wonder where I should go to find out more… do you have a blog hidden somewhere, perhaps?

      I love your point about the metaphorical hats; that hadn’t occurred to me. Brilliant! (My own ‘take home message’ from that scene relates to the very end of Harry’s second point about agenda item 6).

      Hmm… where was I?

      Now I see this comment has become much longer than I’d initially intended so will stop.

      Blast. It was just starting to get interesting!

      * Hmm… no, not ‘teaching English as a foreign language’; the other one ;)


  5. colinc says:

    Thank you, sir, may I please have another! (riffing on Kevin Bacon’s character in “Animal House”) All “seriousness” aside, thank you for your kind, cogent and coherent, and thoughtful response. It is actually more, much more, than I had expected and am quite delighted to mention that. I’ll venture to guess that you’ve probably read much more from R.A.H. and D.A. than I, yet what I have read of them was wonderful. I was always more attracted to I. Asimov, A.C. Clarke and, of course(?), E.R. Burroughs, especially the latter’s “Barsoom” and “Pellucidar” series (didn’t care much for Tarzan except the Weissmuller/O’Sullivan films from days long gone). Alas, it has been “ages” since I last perused any of my formerly favorite works, just not enough time in the day nor enough days remaining. :( BTW, I hope you noticed my apology for misspelling your handle on Gail’s blog, I do chastise myself repeatedly when I make those kinds of mistakes. No response required.

    In light of your outstanding observation regarding the “naturalness” (or lack thereof) of viewing the “Gradual Change…” video on a computer screen, only exacerbating the “artificiality” of one’s perceived vision, obviates most, if not all, of my unstated reasons which are, at best, now irrelevant. (Plus, I’ve mostly forgotten what they were!!!) Of course, in nature (at least a “natural” set of circumstances, i.e. “in the wild” well away from artificiality) most(?) people have several other sensory inputs beside vision which all tax the system (mind/brain) with “demands” for attention. I presume you’ve read/seen some of the (recent?) research that seems to demonstrate that the “human mind” is exceedingly poor at “multi-tasking.” (Indeed, even in the “best” computer architectures, any given cpu is incapable of doing more than just 1 thing at a time. That’s why “supercomputers” have ever larger arrays of processors.) Imagine a [not so] far distant “relative” that allowed him-/her-self to become “preoccupied” with a beautiful butterfly/bird/flower/whatever to an extent that “negated” the auditory input of “ominous” rustlings in the undergrowth behind him/her, thus [probably] removed from the gene-pool. Prioritizing one’s “attentiveness” is a “skill” that seems to have fallen into obscurity (obsolescence?), at least with respect to most of the people with whom I have had any form of interaction.

    Your quote from Schopenhauer seems remarkably similar to a quote I see frequently attributed to Gandhi. I’ve really not read much from either, actually “none” save infrequent citations, but know that the former was, well, much “former.” Alas, it’s about time I start preparing dinner for my wife and I (pan-seared monkfish accompanying sauteed potatoes with bell peppers and onions, demi-baguette from Costco and my 3rd, 4th?, glass of wine) so will depart, for now, with this…

    One night, Plato and I went to the rave and, after an hour or so of mingling, flirting and dancing decided to step out for a spliff. After taking my first long drag on the joint and passing it I asked, “Play (that’s what he allowed me to call him), what’s with all this philosophy crap you’re always ranting on about?” After sucking down about half the blunt and exhaling a cloud behind which he vanished, he replied, “Philosophy, my dear boy, is a means to measure one person’s value relative to other persons.” As I took the nearly spent roach from him, I said, “No more for you, man!” :)

    P.S. If you do NOT have my email from these comments, just let me know.


    • pendantry says:

      I think you’re too quick to dismiss your own input. I still consider the ‘metaphorical hats’ to be a superb observation.

      A little digging on ‘the stages of truth’ suggests that we’re both wrong, in that the origination of that Schopenhauer/ Gandhi quote may be irrevocably lost in the mists of time. Speaking (as you were) of Arthur C. Clarke, that link led me to a 2005 paper by Jeffrey Shallit entitled ‘Science, Pseudoscience, and The Three Stages of Truth‘, which contains the following quote attributed to Mr. Clarke, one that is very relevant to the wibblette I posted just yesterday:

      The speed with which those who once declaimed, “It’s impossible” can switch to, “I said it could be done all the time” is really astounding.

      (I also find Mr Shallit’s paper interesting from a personal point of view, because it has in one stroke successfully disabused me of a false belief that I’ve held for more than three decades… that’s another story, but I’m thankful for you having led me to that.)

      On multi-tasking: I don’t know what new research you refer to, but I quickly came up with this informative article* (undated, though the comments are six years old), which, among other things, has given me a comeback the next time someone accuses me of having a one-track mind, since it seems that exercising the ability to multi-task makes one worse at multi-tasking! :)

      Your observation about ‘prioritising attentiveness’ reminds me of a certain video clip of a woman falling into a mall fountain while texting (I tried to find a good version of that, but though there are a lot of such clips, all those I found had some flaw that made me not want to link them, such as Newsreaders Stating the Bleeding Obvious).

      As for getting my handle wrong; don’t worry about that: you’re in very good company! :D

      * Note that the NY Times ‘focus test’ linked to this article appears to be broken, at least on my system.


      • colinc says:

        Thank you for your kind perspective and thoughtful, informative response. The paper by Shallit was interesting but I’ve yet to read it all. However, the first 2 parts begged additional questions, at least in my mind, but I will have to finish the paper (hopefully I will) and cogitate on it further before I propose those queries. The NYTimes piece was also interesting (and similar in content to what I’d read earlier) as were the comments, but in a somewhat different sense. I suppose my use of the word “recent” regarding information on multi-tasking was, um, too far-reaching(?). It has been “several” years (perhaps 10 or more) since reading the 2 or 3 I vaguely recall and have no idea where I read them or who penned them. Sorry. (I’m also too damn lazy and “distracted” to look at this time.) The NYT ‘focus test’ appeared to work just fine for me (differences in browser/OS?) though, not having slept well the last several nights, my focus seemed to be MIA as I was “blowing it big-time,” yet was aware of that, before even reaching the halfway point of “phase 1” so I aborted the test. However, I have stuck it in my “Pocket” for another go when I “catch-up” on some “good” sleep. (Hmmm, MAYBE I’ve been drinking too much wine of late? I really miss my “vitamin-T”!) Hopefully, I’ll be able to get to your latest wibble later this evening but it may not be ’til the ‘morrow. Thanks again, you and your site are becoming “really intriguing” and I regret that I hadn’t followed up when I first “Pocketed” your site many moons ago. Damn all the “distractions!” BTW, I do NOT do FB or most any of the other “popular social media.” I’m still trying to fully rid myself of earlier decades of cultural programming and am averse to venturing into any more mind-numbing inanity. (Though it’s fun to see it all being “parodied/ridiculed” by Chris Hardwick and guests on “@ Midnight.”:))

        Liked by 1 person

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