How do you see people? The answer might surprise you.
Updated: Sep 25, 2019
In research psychology, there is a phenomenon called “inattentional blindness”. It refers to the finding that when we humans are paying close attention to one thing, we can be utterly blind to other things that happen right in front of our noses. Sometimes when we’re really absorbed in a book or a task we don’t hear people calling our names; sometimes we’re singing along to the car radio and completely miss our exit in spite of multiple signs directly in our view. This kind of thing happens all the time, because our brains can’t be focused on everything at once. If the brain is really focused on one thing, it just doesn’t process many other things that are going on.
What’s astonishing is just how outrageously susceptible we are to this kind of tunnel vision. In a foundational experiment, subjects were watching a video of a basketball game and were asked to count the number of passes made by one of the teams. A shocking number of these people were so absorbed by the task of counting passes that they completely failed to notice when someone in a gorilla suit walked onto the scene and beat their chest right in the middle of the game.
You can find this video online and watch it, and you’ll see that it’s basically impossible to miss the gorilla... unless you start counting passes. If you get absorbed in that, then you may miss the gorilla even though you know it’s coming.
Something analogous seems to happen when we are absorbed in ourselves. When I am thinking only about myself, I can be as blind to the reality of other people as test subjects were to the gorilla. I may go days, weeks, even years without really, meaningfully, thinking about what’s going on with another person—what their perspective is and how things look to them—because my attention is directed at the question of how they affect me. I might spend dozens of hours thinking about how annoying a person is and how wrong about things he or she is. I might go so far as to talk to others about how terrible that person is, and all without ever, in all those hours of criticizing, spending any time wondering about what their perspective is or how they experience my treatment of them. I am seeing them as if they were an object, like a chair or a pen, that only exists for me.
But of course the people around you and me are not objects! They are people, with their own histories, fears, hopes, loves, wishes, dreams and disappointments. When I am so self-absorbed that they are only objects to me, I am fundamentally mistaken about them. I mean, I’m looking at something human and infinite and seeing it the same way I would an inconvenient traffic signal. That’s seriously crazy.
And yet we do it all the time. We gripe about neighbors who don’t cut the lawn, coworkers who arrive late, spouses who forget to buy milk, as if they were objects who existed to make our homes look good, our jobs easy, and our fridge full. It is no wonder that our relationships deteriorate and suffer when people treat one another as objects instead of people.
How then, do we start seeing people as real people? Luckily, it doesn’t cost anything and it doesn’t take any extra time. All we have to do is stop focusing on ourselves and start thinking about the other person. And if that sounds easier said than done, here are some things each of us can do to start seeing people as they truly are:
1. Get to know the person. Think about that annoying coworker or aggravating neighbor that drives you crazy. Have you ever tried getting to know him? Have you ever asked her about her life? Once we know someone it’s that much harder to see them, dismissively, as an object.
2. Pay attention. When you are around someone, how often are you mostly just thinking about yourself and your own goals? Stop and notice the other person, listen to them speak without thinking up your own response, and make it all about them for a minute. They will notice.
3. Look through their eyes. When people are struggling and hurting, that is when they lash out. If there’s someone in your life behaving badly, try looking through their eyes at the problems and hurts they face. Chances are you’ll see that their previously obnoxious behavior is perfectly understandable under the circumstances.
Seeing people as people means not just seeing, physically, their human shape, but looking deliberately into this infinite and unknowable depth in order to acknowledge that others are every bit as human and valuable as I am. When I do this I cannot help but also see them as worthy of my attention. I may not necessarily agree with them or enjoy them or even like them, but I see their perspective as legitimate and their unique life experience as equal in value to my own.