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Explain This, Professor: Selective Perception

What, who, why? In the “Explain This, Professor” series, Bremen researchers reveal why some things are as they are. Today: The multitasking myth.


More and more car manufacturers are focusing on big displays. It is on these screens, which are usually fitted in the middle of the car, that the driver has to set the central functions – even whilst driving. Neuroscientist and psychologist Thorsten Fehr explains why this can become dangerous.

Late once again. I jump in the car and set off quickly. There’s traffic on the B75. The satnav shows a route that is five minutes quicker but it goes through the city center – at least that’s what it looked like out of the corner of my eye. I need to look at the road now – there are so many cyclists at this crossroad. Back to the satnav. But I need to turn down the radio first. I never did like R.E.M.

It is situations like these that Thorsten Fehr aims to avoid. When the psychologist drives his car, he is only driving his car. That means he concentrates on the traffic. “People are only able to split their concentration in a restricted manner,” the neuroscientist explains. That is why he is worried about one particular development: More and more cars have displays via which the driver can change central settings, for example switching the radio channel or using the satnav. In some cars, the displays are fitted in a relatively low position between the driver and passenger seats.

“That is life-threatening,” says Fehr. In order to control the display, the driver needs to avert his or her gaze by up to 50 centimeters and no longer sees what is happening on the road. He additionally notes that the displays are usually smooth and offer no haptic response. “I need to really look at the screen, process the displayed information, and then react. That is all done thanks to sight, thus via only one channel of perception. This channel is then working to capacity and I no longer notice anything else,” he furthers.

The Unseen Gorilla

The keyword: selective perception. Fehr talks of an experiment in which a video shows six school pupils playing basketball. Three are wearing black t-shirts, three are wearing white t-shirts. “The test subjects who watched this video were instructed to count how many times the ball moves between the players wearing white t-shirts. Due to them concentrating on this task to such a great extent, over half of them did not notice the big man in a gorilla costume who walked through the scene and was beating on his chest,” explains Fehr. When we transfer this scenario onto the screens in cars it means that our concentration on the displayed information is at such a high level that we no longer see the obvious – what is happening on the road.

Selective perception is actually one of the central strengths of the brain. It is only through selective perception that we are able to differentiate between important and unimportant things. For example, it allows us to keep an overview during hectic day-to-day life and ensure that we complete the important tasks.

Buttons instead of a Display

Therefore, what is crucial for Fehr and his colleagues is where the technical components in a car are placed. When they activate several channels of perception and not solely sight, a great deal has improved. The first car manufacturers appear to already be reacting to the criticism from scientists. “Today, I had a rental car in which a few things were solved in a haptic manner. There were buttons that had varying shapes and were easy to reach. That is a much better solution than incorporating all functions in a smooth display,” says Fehr. When perception is spread out over several channels, such as touch, spatial orientation, and movement perception, people are able to multitask to a certain extent. However, in Fehr’s opinion all of the said systems should undergo intense testing with test subjects prior to being fitted in cars. This is the only way that humans and machines can work together in a truly constructive manner.

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