Looking Without Seeing

Selective SeeingSo, after his death, it was ‘discovered’ that a superstar of the BBC was a not-so-closeted pedophile for most of his long career. It’s not as if there were not a thousand clues in everything he did and said, including things he said in his autobiography. Part of the issue was plain ole politics and “who you know” that led to his abuse of at least hundreds of girls and women. Part of it, though, was a lot of people looking without seeing, or selectively seeing at best. The officials at Penn State provide another equally strong recent example. This problem of looking without seeing affects all of us, and not just those of us interacting with extreme forms of behavior. Some psychologists call it selective attention. 

Selective attention also occurs in many children whose behavior is on the autism spectrum.  Big time. It is in many ways a defining characteristic in applying the label of ‘autism’.  Teaching such a child a simple discrimination between two stimuli comprised of different parts can be a challenge. Such tasks can be the simple matching of colors or shapes to more complex patterns or relationships.  Learning to distinguish or discriminate the various stimuli around you is involved in many everyday tasks, from shopping at the grocery store to doing your taxes to the various social cues that friends and neighbors give us through their actions. You have to scan all the critical elements of the situation before deciding what to do. 

In a series of experiments, researchers at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center outside Boston found that normally developing kids learned to discriminate complex stimuli composed of several distinct features or elements with ease, but kids with autism had considerable difficulty in doing so.  When researchers hooked up a device that allows them to see where normally developing and autistic children are looking as they attempt to learn a discrimination, interesting differences often show up. The normally developing children scanned all aspects of the complex stimulus, but the children with autism characteristically selectively looked at only a small portion of the overall display. As a result, when they were presented with elements of the display one at a time, not surprisingly they could identify only the one that they had been looking at during discrimination learning. It was as if the other parts did not exist. Normally developing children responded to all of the elements. 

But the researchers did not stop with merely assessing these differences. They reasoned that if they could follow what these children were looking at (using the eye tracking system) they could reward them for looking at each element of the compound. When they did this, guess what happened? That’s right, the kids learned the discriminations. So, the problem was not a problem of some cognitive malfunction or a failure of some mystical process called attention, but rather of not having learned how to effectively scan a complex array. 

This selective attention or tunnel vision affects us all at one time or another. Some of us miss (i.e., fail to discriminate) important features of all kinds of situations. My graduate students in the laboratory often fail to “see” what I see in the data because they have not yet learned to focus in on the important features.  Just as I know those children with autism can learn to ‘see’, I know that my graduate students can as well; they are in the laboratory so that they can learn to make those discriminations. Some people miss important social cues (i.e., fail to discriminate) that can lead to problems for them. Managers and workers alike often fail to discriminate situations in the workplace that can be dangerous to their physical and psychological well-being. 

The lesson, indeed the profound lesson, to be learned here is that in all of these situations it is not that people are inherently stupid, unmotivated, or socially gawky, but that discriminations that are not being performed now are simply skills to be learned. With good teaching, people can be taught not just to look, but to see. If these discriminations had been learned in the case of the examples of extreme behavior in the first paragraph a lot fewer people would have been psychologically damaged.

Posted by Andy Lattal, Ph.D.

Dr. Andy Lattal is the Centennial Professor of Psychology at West Virginia University (WVU). Lattal has authored over 150 research articles and chapters on conceptual, experimental, and applied topics in behavior analysis and edited seven books and journal special issues, including APA’s memorial tribute to B. F. Skinner.