How to hone your skills of observation

You notice when someone’s acting a bit odd in public. You easily recall people’s faces you’ve only met once. In fact, you’d make a great eyewitness if you were ever called to testify in court. You’ve got mad observational skills.

Well, at least that’s what I thought until the first time I watched this:

The sudden appearance of a chest-beating gorilla (okay, a woman in a cheap gorilla costume) goes completely unnoticed by about 50 per cent of all people who see this video for the first time.

Think about that: around half of all people are completely unaware of something so patently odd and out of place that they often mistakenly think the video has been altered the second time they watch it.

The reason for this phenomenon is something called inattentional blindness. When our attention is focused on a small subset of the world (in this case, the number of times the ball is passed between players wearing white), we fail to notice other, unexpected things around us.

Worrying, huh?

But this phenomenon is only a small part of a much wider problem, namely the fallibility of human observation when attempting to accurately recall events.

In fact, eyewitness accounts of everything from serious crimes to supposed UFO sightings seem to be plagued with inconsistencies, contradictions and just sheer errors when compared with forensic, video or other evidence which does not rely on recall.

This matters.

If you’re a journalist, a police officer, a humanitarian, or anyone involved in a situation where accurately relaying a sequence of events or descriptions of the people involved is important, you’re relying on a brain function which is often woefully inadequate.

So, should we discard all eye-witness testimony in favour of other evidence? Not at all.

There are simple, practical steps you can take to dramatically improve the veracity of your recall. These are things you can incorporate into your usual routine of observation and reporting. Let’s take a look at them:

1. Externalise

Memory is not set in stone, but changes over time as new information emerges. In a rapidly-developing situation where you have just witnessed something important, externalise it as soon as possible. This may be by writing down an account of what happened in your notebook. Or even recording it as a voice memo on your phone. But be as detailed as possible – the first few minutes is as accurate as your memory is ever going to be.

2. Disregard expectations

We all carry around preconceptions and biases. When we hear of a violent incident, our minds instantly attempt to predict who the perpetrator might be: an ideological extremist, a disaffected loner, a gang member. When witnessing an incident in real-time, these preconceptions can be fatal to accurate recall. Leave them at the door and observe with an open mind.

3. Don’t follow the crowd

It’s natural for your eyes to be drawn to the centre of attention, whatever that is at the moment. Someone is shot, people scream and instantly crane for a better look at the victim. Instead, look the other way. Focus on where the shot came from – the rapidly disappearing assailant who’s trying to disappear back into the crowd.

4. Practise

Accurate recall is a skill like any other. And that means it can be improved through practice. The number of times we might observe a truly horrifying violent incident in person are thankfully few, but practising observational skills beforehand means that when it does happen, you’ll be prepared. Try with movies, TV shows or anything else where you can observe, recall and then check for accuracy.