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How “tunnel vision” affects everyone, from doctors to hiring managers

How expectations guide perception — and can cause people to miss the opportunities right in front of them

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Remember those hidden picture puzzles from grade school? From Where’s Waldo to the I Spy book series, visual search games encourage participants to laser-focus their attention on finding one specific person or thing. But while they’re looking for Waldo, what aren’t they seeing?

If people could really see everything that their eyes were looking at, then they’d be able to find the exact puzzle piece they want as soon as they looked down at the table or spot their friend immediately in a crowded room. In reality however, perception doesn’t quite work like that. Instead, eyes send raw data to the brain, and the brain decides which points to fixate on in that scene. In this way, it can be helpful to think of attention like a spotlight following what the mind unconsciously determines are the most important areas of focus.

It’s human nature. That means even the most vigilant observers are bound to miss things every once in a while. Sometimes, the things people don’t see can be rather surprising. Studies have shown that unsuspecting participants will unknowingly ignore stimuli as enticing as money hanging from a tree in their path or as scary as a motorcycle heading right for them in a driving simulator. And even when people do actively notice something, sometimes cognitive biases like confirmation bias can influence the way they interpret what they’re seeing or hearing.

Selective attention isn’t always a bad thing. It can help people focus on the task at hand, like filtering out unnecessary sounds when taking a test. However, it can also lead to a metaphorical sort of tunnel vision, which prevents problem-solvers from giving serious consideration to possible solutions that don’t align with what they would expect to find. It can guide doctors to misdiagnose patients, judges and juries to carry out wrongful convictions, and might even cause hiring managers to gloss over candidates who could be a perfect fit for an open role.

Thankfully, work marketplaces like Upwork can offer managers a fresh perspective when it comes to hiring talent. By providing a centralized platform where remote independent talent from all corners of the world and clients connect, using Upwork can help ensure that your company sees a full range of qualified candidates who can get the job done. At the same time, business leaders can gain a newly expanded view of what’s possible for their company.

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