Research Article: Inattentional Blindness and Individual Differences in Cognitive Abilities

Date Published: August 10, 2015

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Carina Kreitz, Philip Furley, Daniel Memmert, Daniel J. Simons, Michael J Proulx.


People sometimes fail to notice salient unexpected objects when their attention is otherwise occupied, a phenomenon known as inattentional blindness. To explore individual differences in inattentional blindness, we employed both static and dynamic tasks that either presented the unexpected object away from the focus of attention (spatial) or near the focus of attention (central). We hypothesized that noticing in central tasks might be driven by the availability of cognitive resources like working memory, and that noticing in spatial tasks might be driven by the limits on spatial attention like attention breadth. However, none of the cognitive measures predicted noticing in the dynamic central task or in either the static or dynamic spatial task. Only in the central static task did working memory capacity predict noticing, and that relationship was fairly weak. Furthermore, whether or not participants noticed an unexpected object in a static task was only weakly associated with their odds of noticing an unexpected object in a dynamic task. Taken together, our results are largely consistent with the notion that noticing unexpected objects is driven more by stochastic processes common to all people than by stable individual differences in cognitive abilities.

Partial Text

When their attention is otherwise engaged, people sometimes fail to notice a salient and fully visible, but unexpected object or event, a phenomenon known as inattentional blindness. Inattentional blindness can be viewed as a byproduct of attentional selection: Our ability to focus attention enables us to ignore irrelevant or distracting information, but it occasionally leads us to miss items that we might have wanted to experience [1–4].

Study 1 investigated the hypothesis that individual differences in working memory capacity would predict centrally-induced inattentional blindness whereas differences in attention breadth would predict spatially-induced inattentional blindness. Specifically, we predicted a link between working memory capacity and noticing for objects near the focus of attention, because failures to notice in such cases might result from central capacity limits. And, we predicted a link between attention breadth and noticing for unexpected objects appearing away from the focus of attention, because inattentional blindness in such cases might result from spatial limits.

Study 2 was designed to replicate and extend the findings of Study 1 with a larger sample size, a second inattentional blindness task, and additional cognitive measures. Specifically, we added a dynamic inattentional blindness task to explore the possibility that working memory and attention breadth might better predict performance when participants must sustain focused attention continuously for a longer time. In both tasks, we included a Near and Far variant, allowing us to replicate the conditions of Study 1 and to compare performance between comparable conditions in a static and dynamic inattentional blindness task.

The primary goal of these studies was to explore whether individual differences in attention and working memory predict inattentional blindness. More specifically, we tested whether inattentional blindness induced by attention to the wrong location would be predicted by differences in attention breadth and whether inattentional blindness induced by general resource limitations would be predicted by working memory differences (see [25,56] for the distinction between different types of inattentional blindness).

Individual differences in cognitive abilities such as attention breadth and working memory do not reliably predict noticing of unexpected objects. Moreover, working memory and attention breadth did not separately predict noticing in centrally- and spatially-induced inattentional blindness. Although working memory capacity was weakly associated with noticing in the central condition of a static inattentional blindness task, it did not predict noticing in the comparable condition of a dynamic task, suggesting that working memory does not predict noticing of unexpected objects in general. And, to the extent that it does predict noticing, the association is relatively weak. The minimal correlation between noticing in our two inattentional blindness tasks suggests that the ability to notice unexpected objects in general is not a stable individual-difference trait. Consequently, inattentional blindness appears to be driven more by situational and task factors, or even by chance, than by individual-differences variables.