Samford University students were urged to not let “inattentional blindness” keep them from discerning the important from the unimportant during the opening convocation of the spring semester Tuesday, Jan. 31.
A common psychological phenomenon, inattentional blindness means that people miss things they aren’t focused on, especially if those things may be unexpected, explained national teacher of the year Dr. Stephen Chew.
“We think we’ve seen everything important, but we’ve missed a lot. It causes all sorts of faulty thinking, mistakes and biases,” said Chew.
“But if we understand that we may have missed critical information, we learn to look for what others might miss. We understand how our thinking can be biased or faulty because of what we missed. This is what education helps us to do. It isn’t that we never make a mistake; it is that we know we might have made a mistake,” said Chew, chair of the Samford psychology department.
The convocation address was Chew’s first campus-wide lecture since he was honored in November as 2011 Professor of the Year for Master’s Universities and Colleges by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
Prior to the speech, longtime Samford professor and former Alabama governor Albert Brewer presented Chew with a congratulatory resolution on behalf of the board of trustees. “The trustees are proud to commend Dr. Chew and express appreciation for his representing Samford so capably in the field of education and throughout the world,” said Brewer.
Chew noted a Biblical account of inattentional blindness, in which Moses took his attention from his sheep to look at the burning bush, as told in Exodus chapter 3. While many passing shepherds had not noticed the burning bush, Moses saw something others failed to see, and discerned its importance. “Only when Moses chose to turn aside to look at the bush did God speak to him. God wanted to see if Moses noticed the bush and recognized its importance,” said Chew.
Inattentional blindness by choice, said Chew, happens when we see something, but choose to ignore it, perhaps because of apathy or selfishness. Often, we don’t notice things that don’t affect us directly, or that might mean work, discomfort or inconvenience, or may be distasteful, repulsive or offensive.
While inattentional blindness can be misleading, even destructive, it can also work to our advantage, he said. “If we recognize what is important, we can focus on that and ignore all the irrelevant distractions around us.”
He advised students to seek an education that teaches how to recognize important details that others might miss, so as to not jump to easy, but flawed conclusions. “Don’t wait for things to happen to you, but seek out new experiences and be open to the unexpected.”
And, like Moses, learn to discern the important from the unimportant.