Watch out for cyclists

Transport for London, which oversees buses and the Tube in “The Old Smoke,” wants drivers to pay more attention to cyclists sharing the road with them. As part of a public service campaign to reduce car-bicycle accidents, they’ve released this “awareness test” ad. Stop here and watch the one-minute video before reading on. Pay close attention.

What’s unusual about this video is that it is adapted from one of psychology’s most famous recent experiments. If you missed the moonwalking bear, you’re probably in good company. Daniel Simons of the University of Illinois, creator of the original experiment, used a chest-beating gorilla. A lot of people missed it too.

This perceptual failure is known in psychology as “change blindness.” Essentially, only a small portion of the information entering a person’s brain also enters their consciousness. I fail to see changes in my environment because my attention is diverted somewhere else.

“Even stranger,” Transport for London’s news release reads, “if you are concentrating on something, you can become blind to other events that you would normally notice. This ‘inattention blindness’ is possibly the reason why motorists collide with cyclists.”

Unfortunately, the ad has become part of story about intellectual property, as well as human error. The company responsible for the ad is under fire in London for copyright violations. It appears no one ever talked to Simons before producing the bear ad. In a post on London-based advertising blog, Simons said he won’t pursue a lawsuit, that he appreciates the campaign’s goal.

“That said,” he wrote, “I am unhappy about what the advertising agency and TfL have done. Nobody from the advertising agency or TfL contacted me to ask about my work, and there was no need to duplicate what I did so closely. I have helped other advertising agencies in the past (for free) to come up with variants of this effect that would be closer to the purpose of their advertising campaign and less clearly duplicating what I did … It would have been easy to come up with a scenario that actually involved a failure to see a cyclist and that didn’t involve people in animal costumes or passing basketballs.”

Compare the London public service ad, to Simons’ original experiment video. I think it’s pretty blatant copying, except that there are 8 players instead of 6, and a bear instead of a gorilla.

I’ve seen the original dancing gorilla ad plenty of times before, and was well-prepared for the Transport for London ad’s general lesson. The first time I watched the London ad, I expected another gorilla. I thought I would count the passes and try to catch the gorilla. When it was over, I had correctly counted the number of passes, but I realized I had missed the gorilla. Then I was asked about moonwalking bear. What bear? I said. But there was the lesson again. I had been looking for basketball passes and a chest-beating gorilla, and I’d missed a moonwalking bear. How perfect.

One of the keys to this experiment is asking the viewer to count the number of passes of the white team, which helps distract from the gorilla (or bear) who always enters in a black suit that matches the black team members. Simons’ original experiment was designed to have some people follow the white team, and others follow the black team. Viewers following the black team noticed the gorilla more than twice as much as those following the white team.

I’ve seen the original dancing gorilla ad plenty of times before, and was well-prepared for the Transport for London ad’s general lesson. The first time I watched the London ad, I expected another gorilla. I thought I would count the passes and try to catch the gorilla. When it was over, I had correctly counted the number of passes, but I realized I had missed the gorilla. Then I was asked about moonwalking bear. What bear? I said. But there was the lesson again. I had been looking for basketball passes and a chest-beating gorilla, and I’d missed a moonwalking bear. How perfect.

In a follow-up study led by Steve Most of the University of Delaware, psychologists manipulated colors to see if viewers still missed strange (or at least unexpected) objects. What they found was that the similarity of the unexpected object to the other objects viewers are asked to pay attention to drives the change blindness effect. When paying attention to white shapes, you usually notice a white unexpected object, sometimes notice a gray object, and rarely notice a black one. One variation of the experiment asked viewers to follow white shapes and ignore black shapes. Meanwhile, a red cross moved across the display. About 30 percent of people missed it.

  • http://writeorama.com Mark Crane

    In reference to the Most experiment, I wonder if there is an ideal color cyclists could be wearing that would increase visibility. Of course, blaze orange is popular, but I wonder if anyone has done research to confirm its effectiveness.

    I suppose the government could put winning lottery numbers on the backs of various motorcyclists.