How To Develop Observation Skills​


How To Develop Observation Skills​ Details

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How Our Brains Work: Inattentional Blindness

In the previous video, more than 50% of people watching the “The Invisible Gorilla” video for the first time, do not see the gorilla. If you’ve seen the video before, did you notice the other changes? Probably not. Only 17 percent of those who were familiar with the original video noticed the unexpected events in the new video [Simons, 2010]. What’s happening?

Although the phenomenon has long been known, recent studies show that it is much more common than anyone realized, and that it is one of the major causes of accidents and human error. In 1992, Arien Mack and Irvin Rock, two researchers at MIT, coined the term inattentional blindness to describe this phenomenon. Inattentional blindness is the failure to notice a fully visible but unexpected object because attention was engaged on another task, event, or object. [Mack, 1998] It happens to all of us. Seeing may seem like a conscious process, but the truth is, most of it is largely unconscious. Our senses are bombarded with so much information, sights, sounds, smells, etc., that our minds cannot process it all.

Watch the video

Yale University’s Brian Scholl discusses how our brains deal with the information overload [National Geographic, 2013].

[PDF transcript]

To cope with the sensory overload problem, we develop filters. Filtering helps the brain deal with all the stimuli and information that bombards it. Our changing culture, values, and beliefs shape our filters and influence how and what we notice, and how we react. Filters help focus our attention on a single task or part of the environment and ignore everything else. What we filter in or filter out depends on where we put our attention. Even though the brain can scan 30 to 40 pieces of information (e.g., sights, sounds, smells) per second, its limited resources mean that most of it is immediately forgotten. This prevents us from becoming overwhelmed.

Attention is something we have to learn. Through time and practice, we have taught our brain to recognize which signals are important and to prioritize them first so we can quickly redirect our attention to them. And, just as attention is learned, it can also be relearned. [Davidson, 2011]

“Have you noticed how nobody ever looks up? Nobody looks at chimneys, or trees against the sky, or the tops of buildings. Everybody just looks down at the pavement or their shoes. The whole world could pass them by and most people wouldn’t notice.” ― Julie Andrews Edwards, The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles

How to improve observation skills

You can follow these steps to improve your observation skills:

  1. Look for details.

  2. Avoid distractions.

  3. Keep an observation journal.

  4. Quantify things as you notice them.

1. Look for details

Take some time each day to pause what you're doing and try to pick out as many details as you can from your surroundings. There are usually big or attention-grabbing things in your environment, but try to move past these objects to find some of the smaller, less noticeable attributes. For example, you might immediately notice the computer, chair and desk in a colleague's office, but try to pick out details about the paint, items on the desk, pictures on the walls and even the carpeting.

2. Avoid distractions

Electronic devices, busy surroundings or even your own thoughts can easily distract you from observing the places and people around you. Instead of listening to music on your walk or commute to work, try paying attention to the sounds and sights to see what you notice.

3. Keep an observation journal

It can be helpful to carry around a portable journal with you so that you can write or draw the things you notice. You can also keep a document on your computer for small observations throughout the day. Focus on things like the:

  • Objects around you, including their placement, shape, size and color.

  • People present, including what they're doing and what they're wearing.

  • Things you see, hear, touch, taste and smell.

4. Quantify things as you notice them

As you observe, try to be as specific as possible. A great way to do this is to avoid generalizations like, "There were some people in the break room." Instead, count exactly how many people there were.

How to highlight observation skills

Observation skills are highly sought after by employers, so it's important that you showcase them throughout the hiring process.

Observation skills for resume and cover letter

One of the best ways that you can communicate your observation skills on a resume and cover letter is by crafting documents that are relevant to the position and free of errors. By tailoring your resume and cover letter to the role, you're emphasizing to hiring managers that you're familiar with the job description and actively interested in the opportunity. Aside from showing that you possess these skills, you should include observation skills in your resume's skills section as well as some of the other examples of observation skills, such as active listening.

It can be helpful to mention how you used observation in past positions on both your resume and your cover letter. If you can, provide quantifiable results that demonstrate how your use of these skills contributed to the organization in some way.

Observation skills for the job interview

Because observation skills are key to communication, one of the best ways you can showcase them in an interview is by actively listening, asking thoughtful questions and responding to the interviewer's queues. For example, you can try to match the interviewer's tone of voice and volume to ensure that you're speaking appropriately for the situation.

Safety in the Workplace

Being observant and paying attention at work is essential for safety. In 2013, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 476,700 cases of non-fatal injuries and 304 fatal injuries in the manufacturing sector. Manufacturing ranks in the top 5 industries for incidences of occupational injuries and illnesses [BLS, 2013] , [BLS, 2013].

Watch the video

Workplace safety training videos can be hilarious, but getting hurt and being exposed to health hazards is no joke. With so much emphasis on legislation, regulation, and safety in the workplace, many employees still walk into an area and don’t know what to properly look and listen for. Practicing paying attention in the workplace makes us safer in several ways. First, following proper procedures and guidelines, or doing things “by the book,” prevents accidents. Guidelines and regulations are developed from lessons learned after accidents and mishaps. Second, paying attention to detail enhances our situational awareness. Situational awareness is the attention to different elements in your environment, understanding their meaning, and recognizing potential dangers before they happen. It requires using your senses, being familiar with the machinery and with the people around you, to be able to see, hear, feel, or smell trouble brewing. Simply put, it’s tuning into what’s going on around you.

Situational awareness is more of a mindset than a hard skill. There are two important parts to situational awareness: being aware of what is going on around you and taking responsibility for your own safety and the safety of others. It may come easily to some, but for most people, it is something that we must constantly strive to improve. For example, looking both ways before crossing the street, requires observing, processing, and understanding the world around us allows us to consider our risks before taking action. In this case, when to cross the street.

  • Accidents often occur because someone was in a hurry or took a short cut.
  • Keep your focus on quality and safety.
  • If a task seems too risky, stop and ask questions.
  • Ask questions about anything you do not understand or any procedure that is not clear.
  • Don’t ignore unsafe habits of others. Speaking to your coworkers about their unsafe habits could keep them from being injured.
  • Take safety training seriously. Training gives you the knowledge to keep yourself and others safe.

What’s wrong with this photo?

How many safety hazards can you find? Click on the image below to open the activity in a new window.

Idea Log

How many issues did you identify? What d

Idea Log

How many issues did you identify? What did you miss?

Behind the Scenes of Humintell

You’ve done so much research. Do you have a favorite study you’ve facilitated?

My favorite study is always the last one.

Dr. Matsumoto

Dr. Matsumoto revealed that he is so proud of his current research and that every time he publishes a new study, he feels it’s the best thing he’s ever done. Now that’s what I call living in the moment!

Can you share anything unpublished you’re working on now or is it all secret?

Dr. Matsumoto shared that he’s currently incredibly interested in clusters of nonverbal behavior.

Analyzing clusters simply means using multiple channels to determine intent and potential deception and can use both verbal and nonverbal signals. When there’s extreme cognitive load or pressure on the brain (this typically happens when someone lies), signaling can occur in lots of different ways–someone may gesture more or less than when they are telling the truth, someone’s speech may change or a variety of other behavioral changes may surface.

In human lie detection, there’s no Pinocchio’s nose, meaning there’s no one cue that means someone is lying. When you examine clusters, you get a much clearer and accurate picture of a subject’s mental state.

You’re studying people all day long. Has anything you’ve learned professionally been brought into your personal life or changed anything about the way you conduct your personal life? 

There’s no way to turn it off, Dr. Matsumoto told me.

What’s important to remember, he suggested, is that anyone can learn a skill, but it’s someone’s intent behind that skill that affects behavior. Being able to read and decode people may make someone an incredible leader or influencer if they have positive intent. However, with malicious intent, these same skills can cause someone to act negatively. 

You can use it for good or bad.

Dr. Matsumoto

If I were to give you a grant for unlimited funding, what would you want to study?

Dr. Matsumoto said he’d want to study the same things, but he’d go about his research in an entirely different way.

Right now, academics are siloed by department, meaning psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, economists, etc. all are doing separate research in different spaces.

With unlimited funding, he’d bring these experts together to look at nonverbal behavior from all angles and drivers of the human experience. Basically, he’d create an unstoppable interdisciplinary team to understand how nonverbal all fits together. Unfortunately, the current education model has created what Dr. Matsumoto refers to as the “Humpty Dumpty” effect, which is that everything for one particular topic has been broken up into a million pieces for experts to study separately. This can make the bigger picture or usable findings scattered.

A lot of research is trial and error–not every experiment succeeds. Do you have an example of a past experiment with a hopeful hypothesis that didn’t pan out as you thought? Is there one study that keeps you up at night?

Dr. Matsumoto said yes, many of his experiments turned out differently than he expected. More than that, however, is the surmounting research that he hasn’t published yet. He’s been published in academic journals more than 160 times, yet there are hundreds more studies that either didn’t make the cut or haven’t been formally written into a paper.

One area he’s currently studying is nonverbal signals of triumph and how other mental states contribute to nonverbal behavior. He told us that nothing keeps him up at night–he’s too exhausted after his nightly judo practice!

The good news is there is lots more research to come from Dr. Matsumoto’s lab, and we can’t wait to share it with you!

Follow along with Dr. Matsumoto’s journey:

How to Avoid Inattentional Blindness

Given that observation skills are so important, why is it that we sometimes miss important details, or fail to remember valuable information? Sure, you’ll miss things when you aren’t paying attention at all, but in the workplace, that’s rarely the case.

Unfortunately, these missed observations are partially the result of how our brains naturally pay attention. Instead of missing out because we’re not paying attention at all, we often miss important details due to inattentional blindness.

Regularly, we experience this phenomenon when our brain is highly focused on one particular task or object, as we can then completely fail to notice something else we weren’t expecting that was entirely visible. The brain isn’t perfect, and when it’s bombarded with sensory information, some of that information gets lost along the way.

For example, if you were told to watch a video where you have to count the number of basketballs that make it through a basketball hoop, you might completely miss someone in a ridiculous costume walking across the screen.

In the workplace, our current task might cause us to completely miss the customer right in front of us, or overlook an important signal for a task we need to complete.

What can we do to avoid this phenomenon?

Generally speaking, the most efficient ways to cope with inattentional blindness in the workplace are:

  • Incentivizing more than just one achievement or successful task

  • Working in teams that allow for a larger pool of observers

  • Acknowledging your faults and the things you miss

While these coping mechanisms are rather simple, they can do a long way in helping you avoid inattentional blindness in the workplace.