Selective Attention Bias: Are you missing the full (health) picture?

Think you are an observant person? Watch this video to test your attention skills. 

Did you see the gorilla in the room — or a person in black leave or how the background changes colors? If you didn’t, you are not alone: according to a study by attention researchers Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, more than half of the people who watch the video will completely miss the waving gorilla who walks right in front of their eyes. 

The phenomenon of missing (seemingly) obvious things – like random gorillas strolling across a screen you are intensely focused on – is called inattention blindness, or selective attention. This psychological process refers to the brain’s ability to suppress information it deems irrelevant (gorillas) in place of focusing attention on information it considers vastly more important (basketballs). 

Science says that we don’t miss important things because our eyes (or minds) do not happen to fall on things like gorillas. Instead, we miss important things because our minds automatically filter out what we are not focused on. What you experience is what your brain is serving you as reality, even when what you “see” is only a small portion of what is truly happening – even right in front of your eyes. 

We can take the awareness of inattention blindness and use it to our advantage, in particular for our health. When we know that inattention blindness exists, we can reverse engineer the process to help build healthy habits (and break unhealthy ones) by asking ourselves one simple question: Is this ultimately true? 

For example, if you set a goal to eat a healthier diet that includes more plants, but you are on autopilot to order a burger in the café, you may overlook an abundance of plant-based menu items because your brain associates the café with burgers. But by taking a step back and asking yourself, “Is it ultimately true that burgers are the main choice in this café?” you will likely see that there are other options your brain did not register because of the strength of your hamburger habit. 

Or you may write off eating salads completely because you are not a fan of iceberg lettuce. But if you ask yourself, “Is it ultimately true that salads have to be made with iceberg lettuce?” you will happily find that there are hundreds of other ways to prepare a salad that includes other greens (or none at all). 

Even a small shift of focus on your current health habits can lead to big changes over time. Do you focus only on fresh vegetables in the produce aisle? If so, you may be missing other foods that can contribute to a healthy diet such as plant-based proteins, dips, and dressings, nuts and seeds, and even meal kits that may help you save time in a pinch.  Do you always reach for a post-workout smoothie or shake, even for low intensity workouts? Try drinking water or hydrating, low sugar sports drinks instead. Do you skip Brussels sprouts because you didn’t like their mushy texture when you ate them as a kid? Experiment with roasting their leaves or shaving them fresh in a salad and grow to love them as an adult.  

What we focus on creates a filter through which we see the world, our lives, and even our health. Knowing we may often miss obvious details in favor of what we already know, we can routinely take a step back to test our habits and beliefs to see what our minds may be completely overlooking.