People often fail to notice unexpected objects and events when they are focusing attention on something else. Most studies of this “inattentional blindness” use unexpected objects that are irrelevant to the primary task and to the participant (e.g., gorillas in basketball games or colored shapes in computerized tracking tasks). Although a few studies have examined noticing rates for personally relevant or task-relevant unexpected objects, few have done so in a real-world context with objects that represent a direct threat to the participant. In this study, police academy trainees (n = 100) and experienced police officers (n = 75) engaged in a simulated vehicle traffic stop in which they approached a vehicle to issue a warning or citation for running a stop sign. The driver was either passive and cooperative or agitated and hostile when complying with the officer’s instructions. Overall, 58% of the trainees and 33% of the officers failed to notice a gun positioned in full view on the passenger dashboard. The driver’s style of interaction had little effect on noticing rates for either group. People can experience inattentional blindness for a potentially dangerous object in a naturalistic real-world context, even when noticing that object would change how they perform their primary task and even when their training focuses on awareness of potential threats.
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