On your way to work today, how many dashed lines in the middle of the road did you pass? What ornaments decorate your dentist’s office? How many people wearing glasses did you see last month?
If you’re like most people, you don’t know the answers to these questions, and that’s a good thing. In his book “The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload,” author Daniel J. Levitin states that the processing capacity of the conscious mind is estimated to be about 120 bits per second, barely enough to listen to two people talking to you at the same time, yet in our waking lives most of us are exposed to more than 11 million bits of information per second, according to Leonard Mlodinow’s “Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior.” Without what psychologists call an attentional filter, we’d be able to recall the minutiae around us, but left without the mental capacity to draw reasonable conclusions about what we perceive, and therefore left without the ability to lead normal lives.
The problem with an attentional filter, however, is that it occurs on the subconscious level. Our brains decide what we notice without any conscious input from us. Of course, we can always force ourselves to notice small details by applying mental resources to count and memorize them, but that only happens with concerted effort.
In a utility setting, our attentional filter can create a conflict between what we do perceive and what we should perceive. Fortunately, the utility industry has an effective solution to our cognitive limitations: the job brief.