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The Test: You can’t see what you’re not looking for

Posted by on March 12th, 2008 at 8:15 am

Still from “Do the Test”.
Watch video below

There’s an interesting PSA spreading around the web like wildfire.

The “Awareness Test” was created by Transport of London as part of their cycle safety campaign.

Check it out at DoTheTest.co.uk (you can skip the intro), or watch the YouTube version below (thanks DanK!). I failed the test, but the message came through crystal clear.

[NOTE: If you leave a comment, please try to not spoil the test for others by giving too much information away before people watch the video.]

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  • Matt G March 12, 2008 at 8:42 am

    I failed it too. Darn. And we\’re supposed to be aware!

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  • ralph March 12, 2008 at 8:45 am

    So they are saying that by asking you to focus on a specific group of people in white, and asking you to ignore the people dressed in black, that it is easy to not see the person dressed as a black bear walk through the scene that is poorly lit?

    Clever but doesn\’t make the point for me.

    The confusion of the scene is designed to remove your focus from the people to count the passes. The only way to count the passes is to place your focus on the ball being passed. This requires that you focus on the upper portion of the screen, making the bear appear to be just another person in a black hoody getting in the way of following the ball.

    Had they directed the viewer to watch the scene and report on anything odd, it would have been a better analogy to driving. Which is ,you are focused on being safe, taking in your entire surrounding, yet you still missed the moonwalking bear (cyclist).

    So while clever, it used misdirection as a way to hide the bear.

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  • Jonathan Maus (Editor) March 12, 2008 at 8:46 am

    in thinking more about this… the test isn\’t exactly fair because they explicitly tell you what to look for.

    When I\’m out on the road I am not looking for one specific thing (cars or bikes)… I\’m trying to stay aware of everything.

    I wonder if I would passed the test if they had presented it a bit differently so as not to manipulate the outcome…

    ***Ralph (above), it seems like we agree… our comments were posted almost simultaneously.

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  • Gabriel McGovern March 12, 2008 at 8:49 am

    Wow – that really hits the point home. Drivers are trained to look for other cars.

    I have barely avoided accidents several times from drivers who \”did not see me\”. When this happened to me on bicycle – I thought that it might my relative size or lack of strong lights. Then it happened to me while riding a motorcycle.

    It\’s true that \”You can’t see what you’re not looking for\” – just ask bigfoot 😉

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  • Craig Giffen March 12, 2008 at 8:50 am

    Looks like there is already some sort of copyright infringement concerning this PSA:


    The original video from 1999 (if the Java player doesn\’t crash your browser) can be seen here:


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  • tonyt March 12, 2008 at 8:57 am

    Not a perfect illustration, but really, it is stunning when you go back and look at it again.

    \”How could I have NOT seen that.\”

    But really, many people looking for cars simply don\’t see bikes.

    Many of us are on the receiving end of that equation more often than we\’d like.

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  • John March 12, 2008 at 9:03 am

    This was borrowed from a (rightly) famous psychology experiment. You can see the original video here:


    I sat in a classroom where 200-some students were told to count the number of passes made by the white team (counting \”dribbles\” as passes made to oneself). Only 3 students saw the gorilla.

    Driving is a complex and dangerous process, exacerbated by radios, cellphones, make-up, and your drive-thru breakfast sandwich. Though people don\’t like to admit it, you can only attend to a very small amount of information at a time.

    If you are even slightly distracted, it\’s as easy to miss a cyclist as it is to miss the bear/gorilla.

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  • Jono March 12, 2008 at 9:05 am

    When we\’re on the road on a bike, motorcycle, or in car, we know we\’re supposed to be aware of our surroundings. Though we tend to focus on relevant information (stop signs, cars, speed limits) and filter out the rest.

    I think this video is very effective at communicating the idea that something we may think is very deserving of our attention (like cyclists) may escape our notice if we focus our attention too much on something else (like getting to our destination faster).

    And Ralph? Thanks for spoiling it.

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  • tonyt March 12, 2008 at 9:07 am

    A while ago I read (I think it was in Skeptic magazine) about a study that used this and other examples to illustrate this perception issue. And it is actually pretty relevant with other things as well.

    Researchers were able to expose issues with heads-up displays in airplanes, where pilots in simulators were following the display (landing on a runway) and totally missing that there was a plane already on the runway.

    It\’s not just a dramatic yet irrelevant demonstration. It points to the very real limits of perception when attention is drawn to other things.

    An argument for less signage along roads perhaps?

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  • Refunk March 12, 2008 at 9:10 am

    Oh, great. On top of normal awareness, I just know that now I\’m gonna be straining to see the moonwalking bear while riding through underpasses.

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  • Pete March 12, 2008 at 9:11 am

    I haven\’t seen the video yet (my Linux machine hates Flash) but from what Ralph describes I can interpret a slightly different analogy. If I\’m driving and talking on a cell phone, I\’m watching for other cars, but even in doing so my attention is divided enough to have trouble seeing the big picture with other cars, let alone a cyclist \”coming out of nowhere\”.

    Maybe my interpretation is closer to Gabriel\’s, as I\’ve thought the same thing after several near misses: \”How can you not see me in all this offensively fluorescent garb with annoying blinky lights??\”

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  • Mark P. March 12, 2008 at 9:19 am

    I\’m ashamed to admit that I have failed to notice a cyclist at an intersection a few times…when I have been cycling myself. We are so conditioned to look for cars.

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  • 3-speeder March 12, 2008 at 9:27 am

    I feel that saying whether car drivers are specifically looking for cars or looking for bikes is missing the point.

    Let\’s face it – the overwhelming majority of car drivers have not hit bicycles. But because there are so many cars, the minority result in a huge number of collisions involving bicycles.

    I suspect that among this minority of car drivers, most are not adequately paying attention to traffic in general. Only the most obvious stimuli (cars) will get their attention, but much smaller stimuli (bikes, pedestrians) will not.

    By asking you to focus on the white teams passes, you end up not paying attention to the other things in the video. So you miss something that you would easily see if you were paying attention to all actions.

    The direction to pay attention to the white team ends up being a way of getting you to not pay attention to the action in general in order to show you that this can lead to missing obvious action in the video.

    I feel the real point of the video is that all drivers need to be taught to pay closer attention to the traffic around them (including bikes and pedestrians) in case something unexpected arises. This is not for the majority of drivers who already know this, but for the minority who often have an attitude that paying attention is not so important because the \”other guy\” will act to miss me.

    When the \”other guy\” is riding a bicycle, this is often a tragic attitude.

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  • Paul S March 12, 2008 at 9:37 am

    @ Mark P. (#12):
    Me too.

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  • Curt Dewees March 12, 2008 at 9:51 am

    Re: TonyT, #9

    I think that this test inadvertently supports the main argument of those who keep defeating the \”Roadside Memorial\” bill, which would allow for putting up government-approved memorial signs along roadways where cyclists have been killed by motorists.

    The main argument seems to be that roadways are already cluttered with too many signs; drivers are already too distracted and have too much to look at and process simultaneously, and that adding even more signs would add to driver distraction and thus reduce safety for all road users. Hmmm …

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  • Mmann March 12, 2008 at 10:16 am

    True. My closest calls – and there have been several – have always been on busy streets with lots of retail businesses (and driveways). Broad daylight, person in car stopped in the driveway, I come up in the bike lane and they pull out right on me. They are looking for cars and they see cars. Make eye contact folks.

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  • Aaron March 12, 2008 at 10:22 am

    I disagree with the previous. The test asks you to focus on one specific aspect. When most people drive, they are also focused on one specific aspect (anything larger than a VW beatle).
    Most drivers are not aware that they need to watch for the unexpected. The test is very much a realistic portrayal of an average drivers\’ mindset.
    Cyclists on the other hand have more to lose in a colision, and so awareness and evasive action are considered normal.

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  • Me 2 March 12, 2008 at 10:26 am

    I think some of you guys are missing the point by digging into the weeds on whether it is fair or not. The analogy of the PSA is right on. Drivers have been trained to focus on certain things, just as we are in the ad, but the practice could have some pretty dire consequences.

    Look at this way virtually every close call seems to involve a component of the driver not being aware of the cyclist\’s presence. I big reason why that is the case is because the driver wasn\’t trained to focus on cyclists.

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  • Refunk March 12, 2008 at 10:28 am

    Mmann, above. Forget \”eye contact!\” Wave at \’em, honk, get them to nod or grimace back at you or whatever.

    I made \”eye contact\” with a guy looking back through his window as I passed. There was traffic streaming by and I admit that perhaps I was not taking enough lane, but he proceeded to open his door right into me, trashing my bike and tearing up my scalp.

    The interesting thing was that he said that he saw me and still opened his car door. He was an off-duty police detective, a trained observer.

    The video (and the original psych experiment) are fun. My advice when driving or riding, however, is simple:
    trust no one.

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  • Moo March 12, 2008 at 10:33 am

    It\’s amazing how many people pull their cars out from a side street onto a busy one without seeing me coming from 20 feet away, And I could swear I\’m making eye contact with them at the point they hit the gas.

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  • Mmann March 12, 2008 at 10:40 am

    Point taken – more acknowledgement than just(assumed) eye contact is always good.

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  • Toby March 12, 2008 at 12:51 pm

    I passed, but only because I saw the original a few years back at work, so I recognized it. Although, the first time I saw it I was shocked at how I missed it entirely! Kind of spooky. I was working in a very busy manufacturing warehouse, and it was part of safety day. And yeah, the test is pretty much set up for failure as was broken down in #2, but the basic point is still true; It\’s easy to miss what your not looking for and you DON\’T always see what\’s right in front of your eyes.

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  • becky March 12, 2008 at 2:08 pm

    I missed it because I was staring at the guy wearing knee socks (knee socks!!!)

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  • Dan Kaufman March 12, 2008 at 2:20 pm

    Thanks for the heads up, Jonathan. I will post to my podcast tomorrow if anybody wants to download the video.

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  • bahueh March 12, 2008 at 3:40 pm

    seriously…? you all missed the big dancing bear?

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  • YouTube March 12, 2008 at 3:45 pm

    YouTube Version:


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  • Matthew March 12, 2008 at 5:48 pm

    I think that when I first started riding a bicycle in traffic it made me a better driver because I suddenly was looking for bicyclists. (And then I stopped driving at all, and probably became a worse driver.) I think there is a very simple solution to that: In order to get a drivers license, you should have to pass a bicycling test.

    This is also part of the reason I don\’t ride a recumbent. A lot of drivers may be paying at least partial attention to bicyclists, but they aren\’t looking for \”weird\” bicyclists.

    But I did get the correct number. 🙂

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  • E March 13, 2008 at 7:42 am

    ha! that\’s brilliant! It sticks with you and makes you think – thereby doing its job. Even if it isn\’t quite analogous to driving, it gets people\’s attention and is memorable.

    They should air that over here. In the meantime I\’ll just send it to everyone I know. 😀

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  • SkidMark March 13, 2008 at 8:33 am

    Why this fails as an analogy is because as a motorist you should be looking for cyclists.

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  • poser March 13, 2008 at 10:16 am

    So does the bear help us to understand how hard it is to see things that we\’re not looking for? Or does he represent the uber-cool, hep-cat bike riders in all black that I see all over Portland?

    I\’d like to see this same video with the bear wearing a dayglo orange jacket and a bright yellow helmet. The point I take away from is Don\’t Wear Black on a bike in traffic.

    I agree that most drivers aren\’t looking for bikes when they drive; welcome to American car-culture, where folks do everything short of fold laundry while driving. They have no time for paying attention, that\’s what insurance is for. And while I\’ll never make excuses for drivers, I have a hard time sympathizing with a rider wearing muted colors without anything bright on their bike in traffic. It\’s like an invitation to get hit. Even an attentive driver is going to have a hard time focusing on someone wearing the equivalently of camouflage. When I pull around the corner with my bright red and white helmet and my bright orange backpack, I\’m ain\’t winning any fashion contests, but I\’m hard to miss.

    I can\’t count the number of times I\’ve almost whacked some helmet-less rider wearing all black. And that\’s just on my bike. Try a cold rainy day in a car with wet windows and limited visibility.

    And don\’t get me started on those same riders riding without lights at night. =)

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  • SH March 13, 2008 at 10:35 am

    best ad evar

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  • Cøyøte March 16, 2008 at 3:52 am

    90% of drivers believe themselves to be an above average driver. No wonder the test is not fair.

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  • DV March 17, 2008 at 9:27 pm

    I failed. Not to be a bad sport, but it is a bit contrived. \”Watch and then describe this scene\” might be a more legitimate test.

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  • Geezer April 11, 2008 at 6:43 am

    It\’s not contrived at all. The primary hazards (the ball) on the road are other cars, not motorcycles. We\’re all watching the ball and missing some of the bears. In Minnesota, if you wasted energy and concentration looking for motorcycles you\’d be dead in a few minutes. There are none out there, statistically speaking. I, too, would like to see the game replayed with a high viz vest on the bear.

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  • Steve April 18, 2008 at 10:32 am

    Ok, it might be unrelated, but I gotta say this video affirms my belief that it\’s ridiculous to vilify automobile drivers for not stopping at pedestrian crossings when there is a pedestrian there, especially on any number of half busy and/or faster streets. There are plenty of decisions being made and things to be watching out for/distractions, besides someone standing still on the sidewalk at random designated places along the street. Try it on Powell Blvd. Are all those folks streaming past the pedestrian standing at the crosswalk lawless yahoos?

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