In his new book Smarter Better Faster, Charles Duhigg recounts how the co-pilot of Air France Flight 447 accidentally crashed the plane into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009.
When the autopilot temporarily disconnected, the active co-pilot—Pierre-Cédric Bonin— panicked. He became fixated on leveling the wings in routine turbulence and didn’t notice that he was rapidly lifting the nose of the aircraft into the sky. The plane’s attack angle rose to 40 degrees, which stalled the plane. It began free falling from 37,000 feet. Even then, Bonin could have recovered control by reducing the angle of attack. Instead, he continued pushing the plane upward, increasing the severity of the stall and ultimately crashing below.
Bonin’s fatal reaction seems a symptom of supreme idiocy. In fact, it was a symptom of cognitive tunneling—and all of us could have made the same mistake. “[Cognitive tunneling] is not a failure of the individual,” one study notes. “It is a normal condition that all people, even intelligent, diligent, attentive people periodically exhibit.”
Cognitive tunneling, also known as inattentional blindness, happens when we fail to recognize an unexpected stimulus in plain sight. In some cases, such as Bonin’s, our failure to see something renders the wrong reaction. One study explains cognitive tunneling as, “the individual performing the task simply fails to see what should be plainly visible and thereafter cannot explain his or her error.” A classic depiction of this effect, Bonin’s last words before the plane plunged into the ocean were, “But what’s happening?”
Inattentional blindness evolved to make our attention more efficient by filtering out irrelevant input so only important information penetrates our consciousness. Unfortunately, our unconscious minds—particularly when they’re overwhelmed with information or options, fatigued, inebriated or panicked—aren’t always the best at determining what’s important.
This may help explain why we sometimes react to career crises in counterproductive ways. We pursue multiple solutions simultaneously; we abandon ship and go travel; we become fixated on coworker, friend or family drama; we blindly follow job perks like unlimited time off and high starting salaries.
We anxiously attend to a million things around us while failing to see what’s blaring right in front of us: the urgent truth about what we’re doing and what we want instead.
I can’t tell you what your purpose is, what direction to take, the puzzle piece your life lacks, but I can relay three principles that help pilots, policemen and average (special) people like you and me prevent and overcome their cognitive tunnels.
When we believe something’s going to happen, we tend to block out other possibilities. If I’m looking for my friend with a red coat on, I may miss her in a crowd if she’s not wearing it. If I’m expecting my research to turn out a certain way, I may inadvertently ignore counter-evidence.
And if I haven’t seen something before, I’ll be less likely to notice it. Humans have an accessibility bias that gives more weight to “easily retrievable information”: stuff we know. If we haven’t previously experienced the best solution to a problem, we may skip over it, searching for more familiar (but sometimes less effective) options.
In short, our expectations can cloud our perception.
On the other hand, anticipation is crucial to effective problem solving. The better we can anticipate problems and potential solutions, the less likely we’ll accidentally ignore them or find them too late. Duhigg suggests for WIRED, “Get in a pattern of forcing yourself to anticipate what's next.”
The best way to do this? Tell yourself a story:
Bonin didn’t realize he was lifting the nose of the airplane because he was fixated on a small digital diagram depicting how level the wings were.
We do this in everyday life, too. We become so focused on the speedometer or our navigation system that we fail to take into account the road in front of us. We hate our job, and we can’t focus on anything but how much is going wrong.
The solution to these brain freezes is to tell ourselves a comprehensive story so we can accurately visualize what's happening. Psychologists call this “mental modeling”. Here’s an example from Smarter Better Faster:
In 2010, an Airbus A380—the largest passenger aircraft in the world—left Singapore for Sydney. Qantas Flight 32 had 469 people on board. Seven thousand feet in the air, Captain Richard Champion de Crespigny heard a loud boom, the beginnings of an oil fire inside the left jet. Within minutes, “twenty-one of the plane’s twenty-two major systems were damaged or completely disabled,” Duhigg writes. “No one was certain how long it would stay in the air.”
In total chaos, with constant alarms blaring what needed to be fixed, de Crespigny told his crew,
We need to stop focusing on what’s wrong and start paying attention to what’s still working.
de Crespigny decided to view the Airbus as a single engine Cessna, the first plane he ever flew. With this mental model, visualizing and commanding the few necessary parts that still worked, he turned the plane around and landed it on the Singapore runway. It was “the most damaged Airbus A380 ever to land safely.”
If you're floundering in your career, make yourself see the bigger picture: how this phase relates to personal patterns and trajectories. Your career is much more than this moment's misery. Recruiting perspective from other parts of your life could help you understand what's going on.
As Duhigg sums it up for WIRED, "we must take control of our attention; we must build mental models that put us in charge."
When we’re mid-career crisis, we feel like we should do as much as possible until we figure it out. We study for the GRE, get a part-time job, pick up a new hobby. But, as HBR concludes, more is not better.
One study found, not surprisingly, that inattentional blindness rates increased from 28.8% to 46.2% when participants guided two aircrafts instead of one in a simulator.
Our brains can’t handle many things at once. As another study put it, “Our minds are simply not built to attend to every object that appears before us at any given moment—no matter how distinctive that object may be.”
In other words, no matter how many great stories we tell ourselves and how well we anticipate problems before they arise, if we’re doing too much we fail.
Multitasking compromises our visual awareness and hazard detection, divides our attention, reduces our satisfaction and impairs our cognitive function. One study speculated that even irrelevant, subliminal stimuli can hamper performance.
I know, you don’t want to just sit on your butt and wait for the answer to drive by. You're trying to be proactive. And action is good, but make it singular and specific. If that doesn’t work, try something else. One thing at a time.
One famous, replicated study on inattentional blindness told participants to count the passes of a recreational basketball team in a video. For nine seconds of the 30-second video, someone in a gorilla costume unexpectedly strutted across the screen. Sixty percent of the participants reported not seeing the gorilla, even though their eyes were fixated on it for an average of a full second.
What’s the gorilla walking across your life? What are you looking at but not seeing?
Anticipation, mental models and refusal to multitask may help you understand your circumstance and direct your attention to the best solution.
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