Perceptual blindness and the TSA

As any traveler knows, flying on commercial airlines involves a large number of inconveniences in the name of anti-terrorism security. Any critically-minded traveler recognizes that these mainly comprise a variety of theatrical measures that bear little resemblance to effective security. As a result, the TSA is criticized fairly and often for ineptitude.

Let’s just take as granted that the TSA’s personnel act in 100% good faith, for the moment. Stepping back from the plethora of highly relevant and appropriate criticisms above, I have a more philosophical question: is the TSA engaging in perceptual blindness?

Also known as inattentional blindness, this is the phenomenon of not perceiving things that are in plain sight. It most easily manifests when a person engages in extreme mental focus — the mere act of focusing on task or stimulus A causes the person to completely miss stimulus B.

Need an example? In this short video, you’ll see two groups of people passing basketballs around in a circle. Your task is to count the number of times the WHITE t-shirts pass the ball while ignoring the BLACK t-shirts.  (I’ve linked directly to the researchers’ video instead of embedding it.)

Don’t read further until you’ve watched the video!

Were you able to keep the balls mentally separated? How many passes did you count? 14? 17?

And by the way, did you see the person in the gorilla suit stroll through the scene? If you didn’t you’d better watch it again.

This video comes from a well known study conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois and Harvard University. The researchers found that half of test subjects failed to see the gorilla. This and other studies have confirmed that when people concentrate too heavily on one specific target or task, they often miss obvious — yet unexpected — stimuli.

If the TSA’s security theater has them over-focused on “shoe bombs” and “three ounces or less,” will they be ready to spot the obvious, yet unexpected, REAL threat?

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