Cutting One Another Some Slack

Imagine you are asked to watch a short video in which six people-three in white shirts and three in black shirts-pass basketballs around. While you watch, you must keep a silent count of the number of passes made by the people in white shirts. At some point, a gorilla strolls into the middle of the action, faces the camera and thumps its chest, and then leaves, spending nine seconds on screen. Would you see the gorilla? An experiment at Harvard University several years ago found that half of the people who watched the video and counted the passes missed the gorilla. It was as though the gorilla was invisible. This was called the selective attention test.

I must admit I recently failed just such a test.  It was hard for me to believe I was so blind.  It happened when I stopped by my local apothecary to pick up a refill on a prescription. There was a woman at the counter paying for hers and so I lined up behind her thinking to myself, “Oh good, there’s no line.” When I stepped up to the counter the pharmacist pointed to a man at my left and said, “I believe he was next.”

I did remember seeing a man in a red shirt looking over some shelves of over the counter medications, but he didn’t seem to be waiting in any sort of line.

Another clerk then asked me to step to the rear of the line. It was at that point I noticed five or six people standing in line waiting to step up to the counter. I thought to myself, “Where did they come from? They sure did appear suddenly.” I was positive they weren’t in line when I walked in and said so to the clerk.  A look of, what seemed to me to be, disgust came over her face and she insisted they were, indeed, in line when I came in. With no small amount of irritation and still fully believing myself to be in the right, I moved to the back of the line.

When finally I stepped to the counter, I once more insisted on my innocence that there was no one in line when I arrived, and went on to concede that, if there were, I must have been blind and unconscious and just didn’t notice. I said my brain must have been a million miles away–which it was.

The two clerks continued to act as if I had purposely butted in line, and I took their perception very personally. I was devastated and deeply shamed. I’d been going there for over twenty years and was known by most of the clerks and pharmacists there. I felt I was given no quarter of understanding.

As I walked out I remembered the gorilla story, and the selective attention test that was conducted. I realized that I absolutely did not perceive the people in line, even though there were many witnesses to the contrary.

The lesson I learned from this was how, in these stressful times, we need to cut each other some slack.   Maybe it would have been a different scenario if, when I stepped up to the counter, the clerk had not presumed I butted in line, but, as incredulous as it might seem, accepted that I, in fact, didn’t “see” the line and offer something like, “Oh, you must not have noticed the line of people, I believe this man was next.”

Allowing me the benefit of the doubt might have gently pulled me out of my reverie to notice more accurately my surroundings—or not—I’ll never know.

What I do know is that I hope I can be quick to give others the benefit of the doubt. I do believe these stressful times call for us to be ever more gentle and kind toward one another; after all, there may be unseen gorillas in the room.

Justine Willis Toms
March 2011