Think you notice change? Watch out, all of us have "change blindness" to some degree

Jeff Cole

As we get older, many of us begin to suffer from more and more ailments – minor to major. There is one ailment, however, that humans suffer from and don’t even realize it! It even has a mysterious, scientific name – Change Blindness. This month, columnist Jeff Cole explores this phenomenon and talks about how to counteract it.

I’d like to try an interactive experiment with those readers who happen to be in the United States. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. I’m going to ask you some simple questions. The only way this can work is if you don’t think – in other words you have to answer immediately with your first impression. Ready?

How many sides are there to a stop sign?

If you just said eight, congratulations. It is indeed an octagon. I once had someone tell me ten – the eight sides plus the front and back! So, we’ll accept eight or ten. Here come the rest. Answer them quickly with your first instinct:

  • What is a stop sign’s dominant color?
  • How many sides are there to a yield sign?
  • What is its dominant color?

Did you just answer Yellow? If so, are you certain? The reason I ask is that in the United States, since at least the 1980’s, we have adopted the international Yield sign. Yield signs in this country are red and white. I don’t expect you to have noticed that because you have only seen a Yield sign maybe 10,000 times. And thus the topic for our column. Don’t feel bad if you said Yellow – it just means you are human. Over 90% of audience members in my seminars say Yellow. (By the way, the answers are: Red, Three, and Red & White)


We are all creatures of deletion. In order to stay sane and productive we must unconsciously (and consciously) delete things from our environment. You can drive by a billboard on the way to work every day for a year and not be able to tell me what it says. People who live near airports eventually stop registering the sound of the planes landing (thanks in part to a portion of our brains called the reticular activating system).

Chances are, right now you are not focused on the pulse in your left wrist or the sound of the blood rushing through your right ear. Every waking moment you are hit with a tsunami of sensory input and information. If we focused on everything, we’d be like deer in headlights and never get anything done. Nature helps us along by making it easy for you to "blind" yourself to much of the extraneous input you are met with daily. Sometimes though, it can go too far and get in the way of those of us trying to drive change in organizations.

In an interesting experiment conducted by Harvard psychologists, subjects were engaged in a conversation with another person. They were subtly interrupted and while they were momentarily distracted, the person they were talking to was switched with another person. Amazingly, a very large percentage of subjects did not notice this switch! They called this phenomenon "Change Blindness".

At this writing, you can see a short video of the experiment on YouTube by clicking here (the experiment begins at 01:20). For a more entertaining version of the experiment conducted on the streets by British entertainer Derren Brown, click here. Brown went on to switch himself out with people who look less and less like him and the phenomenon still continued.

Not only do people delete much of what is in their environment, they tend to see best what they expect to see. They see poorly or not at all things that don’t match what they expect to see and focus on. This can pose a bit of a challenge to those of us tasked with driving process change in an organization. What is to be learned from this and tactically what can we do as a countermeasure?

  • Recognize that Change Blindness is a very real phenomenon. You’re subject to it. Your loved ones are subject to it. Everyone you are communicating your change to is subject to it.
  • You know that recent email you sweated over for three hours to get the wording just so? Don’t feel downhearted if people don’t read it or even if they do and don’t remember it. It’s one of 150 emails they saw today that fell into the background of change blindness.
  • Eight Times / Eight Ways. My mentor used to have that as a saying when it came to communicating change. If you want to pop out of the background of everything else that’s being deleted, you have to get your messages out multiple times and via multiple communication channels. Stand out – be unique. There is massive competition every second for your audience’s attention. Once you have their attention, there’s something to be said for being succinct, sincere, and simple.

In an environment, where everyone is trying to do their own job plus the jobs of two other people who have been laid off, you can bet the dial on the delete-o-meter is in the red zone. Not a lot of excess attention capacity when people are spread thin and trying to stay focused as they nimbly jump between multiple projects.

Bottom line – recognize the phenomenon, and be prepared to adjust the length, frequency, content, and delivery methods of your change communications. Also, recognize you are prone to this as well. Work to periodically change your frame of reference and focus – you never know what you may find!