The silent killer of things that matter most
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Change Blindness is the cognitive phenomenon where we become so busy watching the details, or are so distracted by something, that another thing can change right in front of us—even a massive, glaringly obvious change—without our even recognizing it.
Mostly, that’s because these changes happen slowly, over time; but it’s also because we get distracted. We have limited attention, and what we don’t pay attention to can change without our knowing. Sometimes at great cost to us.
the reticular activating system
Your brain takes in an incredible amount of information at any given time, from all of your senses, but is simply unable to process it all. To prioritize that processing, your brain has something called a Reticular Activating System (also known as the RAS for short). This reticular activating system acts as the “decision desk” in your brain, choosing what information to actually surface to your consciousness so that you can act on it.
The reticular activating system is to blame for change blindness, because it has de-prioritized some information, allowing you to focus on other information (like counting passes).
It makes you blind to the change happening in front of you, especially if that change is happening slowly or incrementally. It takes something dramatic to trigger the RAS to say “oh, wow, would you look at that”… and when you do, your thought is that “all of a sudden” this happened. But in reality, it wasn’t all of a sudden at all. We call this the “all of a sudden syndrome.”
The RAS uses lots of ways to make these decisions and prioritize information, which can evolve and shift over time. And while the reticular activating system is an automatic cognitive system, you do have some control over how it prioritizes and processes information.
by way of illustration
Imagine you’re in a crowded room, having a conversation with a friend. There can be a number of people having simultaneous conversations around you, and while you may be generally aware (and even annoyed) at the noise, you are able to mostly filter it out (that’s change blindness, caused by the reticular activating system) so that you can focus on the conversation at hand. But when someone in one of those nearby conversations suddenly mentions your name, the reticular activating system (RAS) jumps into gear causing you to snap to attention to that conversation.
It’s also why you can learn a new vocabulary word and suddenly start hearing that word all over the place with an apparently uncommon frequency.
It’s not actually, of course, that people suddenly clued into your newfound knowledge and started choosing to use that word. It’s that your reticular activating system has become recently sensitized to that word (a form of recency bias), causing those occurrences to stand out. Before, they sank into the void of information you hear, but don’t process.
Lastly, and more frighteningly, have you ever been driving somewhere, usually along a route that you drive very often, and then suddenly become aware that you have no recollection of the drive for the past 10-20 minutes or so?
It’s a frightening thought.
It’s not that you’re not taking in all of the information of your surroundings as you hurtle down the street in some 3,000 lbs of metal. Your brain actually is taking in that information, enough so that you are able to drive (functionally).
Now, if something were to suddenly jump into the road, or if a car were to suddenly swerve in front of you (or any number of other trigger events), your reticular activating system would jump into gear and instantly force that new information to the forefront of your consciousness so that you can act.
Otherwise, it goes ahead and hides all of that from your consciousness so you can continue to sing your guts out to whatever it is you listen to, or to let your mind continue to wander down whatever strange path it was on. It does all this without any active guidance or control on your part.
That doesn’t mean we have no control over how our reticular activating system performs in its prioritization of information. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
the dangers of change blindness
As you can see by the driving scenario, change blindness can create dangerous situations. It can also cause us to be ignorant of important changes happening all around us that we would care about if we were to notice them, but we don’t.
Often this happens because of entropy, or the propensity of all things to decay or to move toward disorder. Entropy happens everywhere. It happens to our energy levels, to our physical environment, even to emotional landscapes like relationships.
Entropy happens in spousal relationships, relationships with children, or with parents. It happens in our customer relationships and in our employee relationships.
The idea of entropy is that if you’re not actively investing in something, it will tend to decay, erode, atrophy, and diminish over time until it’s entirely gone. A lot like a checking account.
When this entropy starts happening, we are often unaware of it because of change blindness. It can cause lasting damage while we sit blissfully unaware.
Often we remain unaware of the entropy happening around us (like in our relationships) until it reaches a trigger point. This is the point at which the situation has gotten so bad that it triggers our reticular activating system, causing us to stand up and pay attention.
This is sometimes known as the crystallization of discontent.
But often, because of change blindness, our attention comes too late. If not too late, it comes late enough that there’s substantial damage that now has to be repaired.
So while the RAS is an automatic process, a life engineer—someone dedicated to the disciplined pursuit of excellence—can train themselves to take more control over this crucial cognitive function. Then they don’t suffer as much from the effects of change blindness, or the reticular activating system gone awry.
scarcity and change blindness
The first step is to simply understand some of the drivers of change blindness. Change blindness tends to be most common with things that we perceive as being abundant in our lives (see The Law of Scarcity).
If we perceive something as being abundant, even if subconsciously, then our reticular activating system tends to de-prioritize it. It’s seen as not as important, so changes in that thing tend to not make it through to our consciousness.
This is how you can suddenly find yourself at the end of the day wondering where the day went! Time has a way of passing without our notice because we often don’t perceive it to be scarce.
This is one of the reasons why relationships tend to be particularly susceptible to change blindness, because while we DO value those relationships, and even weight them highly in moments of conscious thought, we tend to perceive them as “persistent.”
Your spouse will always be there. Your kids will always be there. Your customers will always be there. Your employees will always be there. And that perceived persistence of their presence in your life causes the RAS in your brain to de-prioritize subtle shifts in behavior or other indicators that the health of that relationship has begun to decay.
Knowing this, you can begin to impact how your brain prioritizes information simply by taking control over your perspective. Choose to believe, and force yourself to perceive, things that are abundant as scarce. We talk a lot more about this in The Law of Scarcity.
Simply changing your perspective about what is and isn’t abundant can change how your reticular activating system functions on your behalf.
strengthening your value system
Your value system also plays a role in how the reticular activating system prioritizes information. The stronger, more authentic, and more “rehearsed” your value system is, the greater the chance that your mind will become conscious of a change that threatens or confronts it.
But when your value system is weak, undefined, or unpracticed, your mind will often go unaware of changes happening around you that pose a threat to the things you value most.
As you’ll notice in the 16 Elements, the underlying architecture of success and foundation of so many of the Life Engineering systems, there is a deliberate attempt to make certain things more concrete.
The 16 Elements bring substance and definition to these critical things—things like Identity (who you really are), Objective (where you’re going), and Meaning (what you value). The more concrete these become and the better you are at keeping them “on your radar,” the more aware your mind is of things that happen through the day that might take you off course, threaten your objective, or run contrary to your identity.
That’s why so much of the Escape Velocity personal performance system relies on a daily, morning review of these things. Basically, what you’re doing is leveraging what we know of Recency Bias (your brains tendency to prioritize recent information… like a new vocabulary word) to program your reticular activating system on what things you want to pay attention to throughout the day.
We tend to be more aware of the things we keep score of. So choosing to keep score of the things that matter most is one of the ways of hacking your reticular activating system, training it on what to pay attention to.
Partly for this reason, Score is one of the fundamental 16 Elements of Success.
Not only does Score help program the RAS to know what you think is important, but it also plays a secondary role. Even if the RAS gets sabotaged by other rules and fails to keep track of something you care so much about, if you’re actively keeping score of that thing, you’re less likely to allow change blindness to wreak lasting havoc on it without recognizing it.
In this way, you can think of Score as providing an early indicator of change blindness. It can serve to actively prevent too much decay from happening without you being aware of it and able to step in and get it all fixed up.
It’s harder, for instance, for your weight to sneak up on you if you’re weighing yourself every day. It’s harder for your muscles to entropy without your knowledge if you’re actively measuring physical performance. It’s harder for a relationship to entropy under the influence of change blindness if you’ve found a way to track a relationship health score.
By the way, if you haven’t developed a relationship health score for your core relationships, we highly recommend you do.
For more information about change blindness and how the reticular activating system impacts our lives, see Assimilation Bias, Confirmation Bias, the Law of Attraction, and the All of a Sudden Syndrome.
now how to apply this!
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Now that you know that change blindness exists (having likely fallen for it yourself in watching the video) and see just how pervasive and detrimental it can be in your life, you’re likely to see a need to take action.
Create an identity statement and review it daily
An identity statement will help train your brain on who you want to become. Your reticular activating system will then work to assimilate information that confirms that perspective (assimilation bias). It will also seek evidence to confirm that belief about yourself (confirmation bias). Additionally, as your day progresses, things happening that don’t align to that belief or narrative you are cultivating about yourself will surface to your radar so you can act accordingly.
Create a strong value system
Clarity on what you value will help train your brain to recognize threats before they get too close or cause too much damage. Your value system will prevent you from “waking up” “all-of-a-sudden,” requiring you to play defense on the one-yard line.
Write down your purpose statement and objectives, review daily
A clear purpose statement and objectives will help you be aware of things happening throughout the day that may threaten to take you off course, even if just a little, so that you can make active, conscious decisions about them. This is one of the ways you become more conscious about what you say “yes” and “no” to as they surface in your day.
Keep score of what matters most
Identify the things in your life that you care the most about, and make sure you have a way of keeping score. That will help you teach your brain to recognize changes in that thing (like counting passes), but it also serves as an early warning system when undesired changes start happening, before they get too far.
Help your kids understand change blindness. Show them the video (even really young ones think it’s fun). It’s fantastic to start giving your kids knowledge of things like this so that at a young age they start to recognize why we do the things we do.
Talk to them about the things they care most about and help them build that muscle: the ability to recognize what things matter and what things don’t. Then help them put in place ways to keep score (and pay more attention) to the things that matter most.
Those things that matter most could be things like their academic health, spiritual health, social health, and emotional health.
Help them recognize the principle of entropy. Ask them how they think entropy might be impacting their lives and what they can can do about it.
Perhaps most importantly, recognize that change blindness will be happening in their lives. Especially to an untrained mind, this can be very detrimental (to grades, to relationships, and to their own health metrics).
Recognize also that the health of your own relationship with your kids may be suffering from entropy that you’re not even aware of. Your kids may even be suffering in ways that you’re not aware of, because these changes are happening slowly, over time. We tend to not recognize those changes until “all of a sudden” there’s some sort of behavioral trigger that forces it into our consciousness.
Don’t wait for that. Pay attention. Be aware. Be sensitive. It’s much better to change a deviation early rather than waiting because we’ve been unable to perceive it.
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Change blindness often impacts leaders, because you’re so busy focusing on other things. You’re typically “counting passes”—in other words, measuring performance or business outcomes—and core things may be changing without you ever being aware.
In particular, this will happen with employee engagement and employee satisfaction. Employees will start to send signals when they begin to become disengaged or dissatisfied, but we tend to not recognize those signals until they’re so pronounced that it’s often too late for us to do anything about.
They begin to travel a path of emotional distancing, which is mostly what we tend to not perceive. But that simple path of emotional distancing leads to a stage of galvanizing resolve and, ultimately, the crystallization of discontent. This is when they become toxic to the team and to the organization, and keeping them (let alone influencing them) becomes all but impossible.
Leaders need to train themselves to pay attention to the little things, the little indicators: indicators of disengagement, or even of growth and progress.
When you notice the little things, you can react quickly and nudge them in the right direction.
If your reaction to this is that you don’t have enough time to pay attention to that level of detail, perhaps you need to consider delegating or saying no to some things. Then you’ll have some more time for the people, because, after all, it’s the people that matter most.
The 1:1 is a good time to do this. A 1:1 is when a manager meets with a team member one-on-one (we recommend weekly, but bi-weekly can do in a pinch). During that time, force yourself to focus not just on the big-picture objectives and progress, but the little indicators as well. It’s by noticing the little things that the big things can be better controlled.
You can also use tools like engagement metrics, performance metrics, or satisfaction scores to keep track of your employees’ overall level of emotional well-being.
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The same is true in this lens as in the leadership lens. It’s been said that businesses don’t create value, people do. So learning to pay closer attention to our people, through a better use of people metrics, can help provide you the information you need to take action quickly.
This could be something like the eNPS (the employee net promoter score) or a better system for frequent feedback, measuring engagement, etc. We make these tools available to you, based on the science we’ve done around engagement, satisfaction, and performance, so it’s easy to measure the change in these over time, whereas otherwise organizations are often blind to these changes. Click here for more on these tools.
But you also want to be paying attention to how change blindness might be impacting your business external to your organization and the people in it.
Is something happening in the market that you might be missing? Is something happening with a competitor? Is something happening with your customers?
Put into place clear discovery and scorekeeping processes to both identify and track what matters most. This could be things like ongoing customer satisfaction scorekeeping (like NPS), an ongoing customer needs analysis (often a function of product management or product marketing), or an ongoing assessment product-market fit (sometimes even a sales function). Then develop frequent feedback processes where changes in these things surface early and often.
This can go a long way to prevent things like functional obsolescence of your product or service. In particular, it can prevent too much decay in the things that matter most to your business.