Looking without seeing

Looking without seeing

Hello and Hi from the Food Bites desk,

This week we ask a very interesting question; “How is it possible to look, but not see?”.

We find that this is happening more and more in food processing facilities – staff miss defects during sorting fruit or trimming fish, labels and/or expiry dates are checked and are still wrong and where specific customer instructions are missed.

How is it possible that a non-conformity is not detected by one or sometimes more people?  These “problems” are channeled to our non-conformance and corrective action systems and staff are re-trained and re-trained and re-trained.

And yet, the problem is recurring

Research has identified this phenomenon as inattentional blindness.   Inattentional blindness (or sighted blindness) occurs as a result of lack of attention rather than any vision defects or deficits – which can affect any individual.  It is a psychological phenomenon that causes you to miss things that are right in front of your eyes.  It usually happens under conditions of high cognitive load i.e when a person’s attention is occupied by some other objects and events whilst making decisions or processing a large amount of data.  It is not a cognitive or visual defect.  It is an issue of awareness – principally the failure to notice an entirely visible, though unexpected object because our brains are otherwise engaged.

Inattentional blindness occurs because we do not have enough brain power to pay attention to everything in our view – that is why we cannot focus on everything we see.  It also fascinating to note that the effect of inattentional blindness does NOT depend on how well the person is trained to notice details.  Error-reduction strategies such as education, training, policies and procedures are of little value.

Our brains apply four filters to deal with this “system overload”, capacity, expectation, mental workload and conspicuity (or prominence):

  • Research shows that listening to music decreases inattentional blindness
  • Increased conspicuity of critical information – in other words an object or information jumps out to command our attention. Our brains are drawn to sensory prominence, e.g., the contrast of an object against its background.  Think of a well-lit inspection cubicle…
  • Reduce mental workload. Perceptual over-loading of the brain increases the likelihood of inattentional blindness.  Chances increase when our attention is diverted to a secondary task, such as doing an inspection while holding a conversation about another important subject.
  • Increase capacity to pay attention by decreasing diversions of attention and the number of secondary tasks when carrying out complex tasks or tasks requiring focused attention.

Where are we going with this?  Next time your investigation draws you to conclude that the individual involved was negligent, careless, or not paying attention; STOP. Studies have shown that even the most attentive, intelligent and vigilant people would suffer the same degree of inattentional blindness in similar situations.

Looking is not the same as seeing. You have to focus your attention on it in order to be aware of it.

“See” you next week…

From the Food Bites team

Until next week…