Did you see that clown!
Researchers have known for over 100 years that it takes attention to process the visual world. Just because you look at something doesn't ensure that you will actually see it. You have to pay attention to really see the world. Psychologists use the term Inattention Blindness to refer to this look but fail to see phenomenon.
Clever demonstrations of inattention blindness were popularized in the last decade by Dan Simons and colleagues. In one of Dan Simons' videos, participants were asked to watch a short video clip of two teams passing a basketball back and forth and report the number of times that the team wearing white jerseys passed the ball. Midway through, a person dressed in a gorilla suit walked into the scene, stood in the middle of the basketball players, beat his chest, and then sauntered off the screen. Amazingly, more than half of the people watching the video failed to see the gorilla! Participants looked right at the gorilla, but they didn't see it because they suffered from inattention blindness.
Drivers also suffer from inattention blindness when they talk on a phone, missing up to half for the things that they would have seen had they not been on the phone. There are far too many cases of a driver talking on a phone (suffering from inattention blindness) cruising right through a red traffic light and causing a serious injury or fatality. This happens several times a day on our roadways! If you would like to read more on driver distraction and inattention blindness, you can read a paper I wrote on the topic here.
Now what's all this about a clown riding a unicycle?
The idea here is that cell-phone induced inattention blindness causes impairments whenever we navigate through space. This includes driving, ride a bike, and even walking. We need to pay attention when we navigate though space.
To show that cell phones interfere with walking, researchers from Western Washington University watched students as they walked across campus. They found that people talking on a phone walked slower, changed directions more often, weaved more frequently, and were less likely to acknowledge other people than students who were walking with a classmate, walking by themselves, or walking while listening to their iPod.
To examine inattention blindness, the researchers had a clown ride a unicycle across campus towards the pedestrians.
An alarming three out of four students talking on their cell phone failed to notice the clown riding towards them on the unicycle! By contrast, the majority of the other pedestrians noticed the clown. That is, this study shows that cell phones cause just as much inattention blindness for pedestrians as it does for drivers of an automobile.
You should take this as a cautionary note. You put yourself and others at risk when you navigate (drive, ride a bike, rollerblade, ski, fly an airplane, or even walk) while using a cell phone.