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"Seeing Is Believing" Is a Popular Meme. Is It True?

No. But too often what we believe governs what we see.

Key points

  • Many Americans today may be ignoring the truth and endangering democracy.
  • "Inattentional blindness—failing to notice something because attention is engaged elsewhere—may be affecting large numbers of people.
  • Stopping these lies is hard because people do not understand their behavior.

Science is teaching us that we need to revise the oft-repeated truism that seeing is believing. Our own eyes send information to our brain about something that has actually happened, and we remember it.


Indeed, the truth may often be just the opposite—that believing is seeing. Considerable evidence suggests that when someone focuses intently on particular aspects of their environment, he or she may fail to see other aspects, even when they are clearly visible. From time to time, we all experience inattentional blindness.

Most of us have had such experiences. Think of a teenager, “cruising down a familiar highway, keeping a conscientious eye on the speedometer, the rearview mirror, the oncoming traffic,” notes the American Psychological Association Monitor. “Too late, he notices a deer standing in the road. He slams on the brakes but can't avoid striking the animal. Later, the teen insists to his parents that his eyes were on the road—he was paying attention to his driving. He just never saw the deer.”

His parents are skeptical, believing as most of us do, that seeing is a matter only of opening one's eyes. “Even as we recognize that the brain does a lot of processing behind the scenes, we expect that at least salient objects—a large animal in our path, for example—will capture our attention.”

Cognitive psychologists studying inattentional blindness have uncovered startling results. In a widely cited and replicated 1999 experiment, Harvard psychologists Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris “revealed how people can focus so hard on something that they become blind to the unexpected, even when staring right at it. When one develops ‘inattentional blindness,’ as this effect is called, it becomes easy to miss details when one is not looking out for them.”

In their experiment, “study participants are asked to watch a video in which two teams, one in black shirts and one in white shirts, are passing a ball. The participants are told to count how many times the players in white shirts pass the ball. Midway through the video, a gorilla walks through the game, stands in the middle, pounds his chest, then exits.

Study participants are then asked, “‘But did you see the gorilla?’More than half the time, subjects miss the gorilla entirely. More than that, even after the participants are told about the gorilla, they're certain they couldn't have missed it.”

For that reason, this experiment is widely referred to as The Invisible Gorilla.

As Simons explains, "Our intuition is that we will notice something that's that visible, that's that distinctive, and that intuition is consistently wrong."

"Although people do still try to rationalize why they missed the gorilla, it's hard to explain such a failure of awareness without confronting the possibility that we are aware of far less of our world than we think," Simons told LiveScience.

These studies challenge the common belief “that as long as our eyes are open, we are seeing.” Clearly, attentional factors can lead us to “not see” visual stimuli. Indeed, after much research, it seems clear “we perceive and remember only those objects and details that receive focused attention.”

Current events provide ample evidence of inattentional blindness and the difficulty of undoing its effects.

The largest and most glaring example is confronting us right now. Donald Trump’s Big Lie, that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, effectively convinced some 74 million Americans that the fact of Biden’s victory was a hoax. In the service of promoting his lie, Trump urged people to keep a keen eye out for cheaters at polling places, and asked the White Supremacist Proud Boys to standby to call them out. He tried to keep the public focused on his fantasy and to pay no attention to the record numbers of voters who cast legitimate votes.

And he was remarkably successful, even though U.S. election officials state that “the 2020 election was the most secure in American history ... There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.” Yet his followers continue to be blinded to the evidence in front of their eyes. So much for the “seeing-is-believing” doctrine.

Relatedly, those who hesitate to be vaccinated because of baseless concerns about the speed at which the vaccines were developed are unmoved by the overwhelmingly positive scientific facts about the vaccine's efficacy. Once again, beliefs eclipse credible and widely verifiable truth.

Going forward, many Americans are legitimately worried about the continuing effects of the Big Lie, which seem to mount even in the face of masses of data refuting it and almost no evidence to support it. So much for the idea that people will follow the evidence that they are seeing every day.

Evidence of inattentional blindness continues to grow. "Stop the Steal" became the rallying cry that led to countless marches, protests, and ultimately to the January 6 attack on the Capitol. The effects continue to be felt. Months after the election more than 300 bills are under consideration that would effectively limit or even deny access to the many of the voters Trump believes stole the election from him. Indeed, voter suppression, many agree, is the most important issue today.

“These bills are an unmistakable response to the unfounded and dangerous lies about fraud that followed the 2020 election,” reports the Brennan Center for Justice.

“Also in reaction to 2020, four states have proposed legislation that would modify how presidential electors are allocated, and eleven states have introduced bills to adopt the national popular vote compact.”

Today we are witness to a dramatic version of inattentional blindness: when large masses of people expecting to see certain events, affirm that such events occurred even in the face of overwhelming evidence that they did not.

Mr. Trump has lost dozens of court cases. The Supreme Court had rejected his cause twice. And the Electoral College gave the final legal stamp of approval to Mr. Trump’s loss. Building on the seeing-is-believing model, many endorse the idea that once out of office Trump's roughly 74 million ardent followers will abandon him.

But little has changed. Months after the fact, the view among Mr. Trump’s faithful followers remains the same: the election was stolen; Trump is the rightful winner of the 2020 Presidential election.”

Beliefs trump reality. The net effect of this process is that "facts" alone are unlikely to be persuasive.

It is, therefore, not surprising that, “More than two-thirds of Republicans say the 2020 presidential election was invalid … [The poll] found that 67 percent of Republicans view the past election as invalid, compared to 23 percent who believe it was valid.”

Given how divided our country is now, how do we now reach a consensus about reality? It takes “a tremendous amount of work ... to educate citizens to resist the powerful pull of believing what they already believe, or what others around them believe, or what would make sense of their own previous choices."

Trump has made this job especially difficult. He has demeaned science to such an extent that many people no longer have faith in this previously esteemed source of truth.

By denouncing the press as the enemy of the people, he has undercut another once-respected source of truth.

Fortunately, the courts so far remain strong. Justice may be blind but it is not suffering from inattentional blindness. Hopefully, in the near future, tales of stolen votes, pedophile rings run by high officials and movie stars, false stories about Jewish lasers and the notion that Jan. 6 was the work of the FBI will fade.

But there is no guarantee.


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