In 1960, parapsychologist Anthony Donald Cornell donned a bed sheet and attempted to scare an audience watching an X-rated film in a movie theater. Why? Cornell, a believer in ghosts himself, wanted to understand how people reacted during “apparitional experiences.” Today at the BBC, University of Oxford experimental psychologist Matthew Tompkins explores Cornell’s strange experiments and considers how his methods may have contributed to the study of “inattentional blindness.” Indeed, the ghost in the movie theater experiment is not unlike Daniel Simons and Christopher Chablis’s classic “Selective Attention Test” from 1999. If you’re not aware of that experiment, the video below is a must-see. From the BBC:
For Cornell, the experiment was another failure. None of the audience reported anything remotely paranormal. Many saw nothing unusual at all: 46% of the respondents had failed to notice the Experimental Apparition when Cornell first passed in front of the screen, and 32% remained completely unaware of it. Even the projectionist, whose job was to watch for anything unusual, reported that he had completely failed to notice the apparition. Those that did see ‘something’ were not particularly accurate in their descriptions….
For me, these failures to see are by far the most exciting part of the experimental series. The pleasure of reading Cornell’s original reports, which were published in 1959 and 1960 in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, is that he writes in matter-of-fact academic prose. He dutifully reports numbers and exact quotes from participants, and walks the reader through the details of his experimental designs without a glimmer of apparent irony. To him, the cinema audience and the X-rated film simply represented an elegant solution to a methodological problem….
Even though inattentional blindness is now an established phenomenon with the scientific community, in general, everyday people are not necessarily aware of it. Contemporary surveys have shown that most people firmly believe that they would notice unexpected objects and events, even if they were paying attention to something else.