On Being Absolutely Certain-and Wrong


Sometimes we're blind to what's right in front of us. We think we're paying full attention, but, as Naomi Karten knows from a recent travel experience, we're not. In this week's column, Naomi describes what happened and discusses some fascinating research that demonstrates how common this form of blindness is.

While en route to present a seminar, I had to change planes in Denver. On arrival in Denver, I checked the departures monitor for my connecting flight. There it was: gate B52 at 3:20 p.m., just as I had expected. It was a short flight on a tiny plane. I had taken many such flights from Denver, and they had all departed from B gates numbered in the 50s.

Having time to kill, I wandered around, periodically rechecking the monitor in case of a gate change. But, no, it was still B52 at 3:20 p.m.

At 2:50 p.m., I moseyed to gate B52. Strangely, the flight information wasn't yet posted, and no service agents were in sight. But, I knew that flights on tiny planes often board right at departure time, so the service agents were surely on their way.

Finally, at 3:00, the flight information was posted. But, it said San Francisco, departing at 4:15 p.m. What? I checked the departure monitor again. It said B52 at 3:20 p.m. How could this be?

And now it was 3:10 p.m. Something was very wrong. Once more, I checked the departure monitor. That's when I saw my departure gate wasn't B52; it was A52! Up until then, the monitor had read B52. I'm sure of it. I'm absolutely positive. But, now it said A52, and I was very far from A52, even at run-like-crazy speed!

To B or not to B
Off I went, hurrying, scurrying, and worrying, doing the airport slalom, swerving around people, veering this way and that, while setting a personal best for inter-terminal travel.

3:11 p.m. ... 3:12 p.m ... 3:13 p.m. ...

Despite huffin' and puffin' regularly at the gym, I quickly became winded. Of course, on the treadmill I don't carry a laptop and carry-on bag.

3:14 p.m. ... 3:15 p.m. … 3:16 p.m. ...

Reaching gate A52 entailed racing through concourse B, rushing down two escalators, taking the train to concourse A (the forty-five-second wait for the train was twice as long as forever), dashing up two long escalators, and speeding to the end of concourse A. Whereupon, at 3:19 p.m., I discovered that my gate wasn't just A52 but A52, door H, downstairs, and at the end of a long corridor.

I gasped my way to door H. It was 3:20 p.m. on the dot. The plane was still there, and I was allowed to board.

Believing is Seeing
I had fallen victim to the "believing is seeing" syndrome. Once my heart rate slowed to a normal thumpety-thump and I reflected on the situation. I realized that when I first looked at the monitor, I saw what I expected to see: a B gate. Gate B52 fit my mental model of how things were, because that's how they'd been in the past. Once I "saw" B52, I kept seeing it each time I checked, even when the facts clearly stated otherwise.

Have you ever been so certain of what you believed to be the truth of a situation that you were blind-as I was-to the reality of the situation?

It turns out there's an entire field of research that focuses on types of blindness in which you see just fine yet miss what's happening right in front of you. One such type of blindness, called change blindness , is being blind to a change that takes place right in front of you. Another type, attentional blindness , results from focusing so intently on one thing that you don't notice something else. See the University of Illinois' Visual Recognition Lab's Web site for

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