I hope this comic has you all quietly wondering where the fire extinguisher in your office is. If nothing else, a UCLA study titled Fire drill: Inattentional blindness and amnesia for the location of fire extinguishers by Alan D. Castel & Michael Vendetti & Keith J. Holyoak, will have increased office safety by leaps and bounds by directing attention to people’s inattention. I hope to have done the same thing in regards to paranoia about office tigers.
The study shed new light on the workings of what is already a somewhat well known phenomenon. The tendency to filter out extraneous details when focusing on another task has been hilariously exploited to great effect. My favorite examples being the famous gorilla test (more on this next time) and mentalist Derren Brown’s demonstration of a related phenomenon known as change blindness.
In everyday life, your brain filters out countless external stimuli. Things like the feeling of our clothes on our skin or the movements of individual blades of grass* would drive us nuts, otherwise. This effect is magnified when you are focusing on a task—such as trying to direct a stranger to a landmark, as shown above.
The remarkable thing that Castel discovered was that in a follow up interview a couple months later, all the participants could recall the exact location of their extinguishers. It’s likely that being suddenly put on the spot elevated the fire extinguisher to a level of importance, rather than a ubiquitous scenery item. If you want to run off and find your nearest fire extinguisher, I won’t blame you. Go on, now.
*though I’m sure you’ve noticed it in times where your brain turns up its situational awareness in preparation for a threat.