The Causes of Human Rights Violations (28): Inattentional Blindness

Why do human rights violations endure? Because we don’t see them. Or better, some of them. We often suffer from so-called inattentional blindness, the phenomenon of not being able to perceive things that are in plain sight because we are paying attention to some other details. If we don’t pay attention to an object that is really obvious, we simply will not perceive it, even if we “see” it, and that’s because attention is extremely important for perceiving. The best-known example of inattentional blindness is the invisible gorilla test: observers asked to count the number of passes between basketball players fail to notice a man in a monkey suit walking through the action.

Recently, a policeman was convicted for perjury when he claimed not to have seen a beating that he ran past while in pursuit of someone else. If even a policeman, trained to spot human rights violations, doesn’t notice them under certain circumstances, why should the rest of us?

If the persistence of human rights violations can be explained – in part – by inattentional blindness, than that’s depressing, since we have every reason to believe that inattentional blindness isn’t going away. On the contrary, our lives and societies are become more and more complex, urbanized and technology-based, requiring higher levels of attention to details. If this complexity makes it more likely that we fail to see certain human rights violations, then it’s clearly very difficult to do anything about them. You can’t change what you can’t see.

More posts in this series are here.

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