Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Inattentional Blindness and the Von Restorff Effect

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Inattentional Blindness and the Von Restorff Effect

Article excerpt

Abstract Sometimes we fail to notice distinctive or unusual items (inattentional blindness), while other times we remember distinctive items more than expected items (the von Restorff effect). A three-factor framework is presented and tested in two experiments in an attempt to reconcile these seemingly contradictory phenomena. Memory for different types of unexpected stimuli was tested after an easy or difficult Stroop color-naming task. Highly arousing taboo words were well remembered even when the difficult Stroop task limited attentional resources. However, a conceptual isolation effect was only observed when the nature of the category change was highlighted by the Stroop task, the Stroop task was easy, and/or the isolated targets enjoyed a retrieval advantage relative to comparison targets. As proposed in the three-factor framework, the arousing qualities of the stimuli, the attentional demands of the primary task, and the relevance of isolated features at encoding and retrieval combine to produce inattentional blindness and the von Restorff effect.

Keywords Memory . Attention . Distinctiveness


When people are engaged in an attention-demanding task they often fail to notice distinctive or unusual events. For example, Simons and Chabris (1999) asked participants to view a video of players passing a basketball among themselves. The players were on two teams; one team wore white shirts while the other wore black shirts. The participants were instructed to count the number of basketball passes between players dressed in white (or black) shirts. Midway through the task a person dressed in a gorilla suit walked across the screen. Simons and Chabris demonstrated that 46 % of their participants failed to report seeing the gorilla. This is a striking example of inattentional blindness.

In contrast to these inattentional blindness results, many researchers have demonstrated that unusual events "stand out" and are well remembered. For example, von Restorff (1933) demonstrated that a number was well remembered in a list of nonsense syllables. This phenomenon is often called the von Restorff (but see Hunt, 1995) or isolation effect. The isolation effect has been demonstrated with items isolated by physical characteristics, conceptual category, or processing task (see Schmidt, 1991, 2008, and 2012 for reviews). Additionally, bizarre sentences (McDaniel & Einstein, 1986), words with unusual orthography (Hunt & Elliot, 1980), and pictures of clothed people (Schmidt, 2002) are all well remembered when presented in contrasting contexts (common sentences, common words, and nudes, respectively). In both inattentional blindness and isolation tasks, experimenters assess memory for an unusual or unexpected stimulus embedded in a series of stimuli. Why are gorillas not remembered, or indeed not even noticed, in the context of basketball players, yet a number stands out in the context of letters? The primary motivation for the research presented below was to reconcile apparent contradictions between inattentional blindness and the isolation effect.

The apparent paradox between inattentional blindness and enhanced memory for distinctive information is further highlighted by the role similarity plays in these two phenomena. Most, Simons, Scholl, Jimenez, Clifford, and Chabris (2001) asked participants to view a display containing moving L and Tshapes. The primary task was to keep track of the number of times the white (or black) shapes bounced off the sides of the screen. A cross traveled across the screen midway through a critical trial. Following the trial the participants were asked if "they had seen anything unusual on the screen (p. 11)." In different experimental conditions the cross varied in color from white to gray to black. Detection of the unexpected cross increased as it became more similar to the color of the letters the participants were tracking. That is, increased similarity improved detection of the unusual event. …

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