Date Published: May 26, 2015
Publisher: Public Library of Science
Author(s): Carina Kreitz, Robert Schnuerch, Henning Gibbons, Daniel Memmert, Philip Allen.
Human awareness is highly limited, which is vividly demonstrated by the phenomenon that unexpected objects go unnoticed when attention is focused elsewhere (inattentional blindness). Typically, some people fail to notice unexpected objects while others detect them instantaneously. Whether this pattern reflects stable individual differences is unclear to date. In particular, hardly anything is known about the influence of personality on the likelihood of inattentional blindness. To fill this empirical gap, we examined the role of multiple personality factors, namely the Big Five, BIS/BAS, absorption, achievement motivation, and schizotypy, in these failures of awareness. In a large-scale sample (N = 554), susceptibility to inattentional blindness was associated with a low level of openness to experience and marginally with a low level of achievement motivation. However, in a multiple regression analysis, only openness emerged as an independent, negative predictor. This suggests that the general tendency to be open to experience extends to the domain of perception. Our results complement earlier work on the possible link between inattentional blindness and personality by demonstrating, for the first time, that failures to consciously perceive unexpected objects reflect individual differences on a fundamental dimension of personality.
One of the most essential functions of our cognitive system, the ability to selectively prioritize certain sensations, sometimes leads us to inadvertently exclude other sensory information from awareness: We often miss an object right in front of our eyes if it occurs unexpectedly and our attention is otherwise engaged. This phenomenon has been labeled inattentional blindness , and it occurs in diverse and potentially critical situations. For example, when pilots focus on information projected onto the windshield during landing, they sometimes completely overlook other airplanes on the runway . Also, radiologists looking for lung nodules in CT scans failed to notice much larger, yet unexpected alterations in the image  (see also).
Participants were considered to have missed the unexpected object if they did not report noticing it or claimed to have seen something but could not define at least two of the following three features of the unexpected object: position, color, shape. Since we only included data from participants who noticed the additional gray square in the control condition (full attention) and correctly identified two of its three features, missing the critical unexpected object cannot be attributed to unwanted physical or technical difficulties (such as basal visual problems, a poor contrast, or other factors related to the particular technical device that the participants used to perform the study). All statistical analyses conducted were two-tailed. Correlations are reported with 95% confidence intervals in square brackets. As a standardized measure of effect size for group differences, risk ratios with 95% confidence intervals in square brackets are reported.
In the attempt to disentangle the underlying mechanisms of inattentional blindness, a substantial amount of research has been conducted on the situational factors that affect the susceptibility to this failure of awareness (e.g. [8,9,58,59]). Far less research has been concerned with individual differences that might influence proneness to inattentional blindness. In particular, hardly anything is known about the contribution of personality to this phenomenon (but see [20,21]). In the present study, we investigated the link between inattentional blindness and a multitude of fundamental personality traits. Interestingly, inattentional blindness was largely independent of observers’ personality. Basic traits such as extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientiousness, BIS, and BAS, as well as a-priori likely candidates such as achievement motivation, schizotypy, and absorption were not related to the likelihood of detecting an unexpected object. However, openness, one of the five most fundamental dimensions of personality, indeed predicted noticing in the present study.
In a large-scale sample we demonstrated the minimal predictive value of personality in inattentional blindness. We tested the contribution of a variety of personality traits, yet found only openness to be linked to noticing an unexpected object. The effect size was rather small, indicating that this trait accounts only for a fraction of the variability of such failures of awareness. It does, however, corroborate previous studies suggesting that individual differences do play a role in inattentional blindness (e.g., [15,21]).