A week before Christmas, I was standing at the customer service counter at Target, where I was returning a purchase. In my online-gift-ordering zeal, designed to prevent me from setting foot in any commercial establishment during the month of December, I ended up ordering the same gift twice. So here I was, returning one of them. Behind me, a long line of weary shoppers waited their turns.
As the young woman at the counter was completing my transaction, the phone rang. Reluctantly, she apologized and then picked up the phone. I waited as she helped the caller and answered his questions.
It was clear the caller was looking for someone who wasn’t currently on shift. I listened as the clerk tried, unsuccessfully, to wrap up the call. I then heard her say, “Well, maybe she’s working later tonight, let me check the schedule.”
She cupped a hand over the phone, apologized to me again, and ruffled through some papers looking for the schedule. She then turned to the cashier next to her and said, “This guy keeps calling for ____. He’s been calling over and over for the past week, trying to reach her. He’s very insistent.”
The red flag went up for me immediately and I began listening more intently. The sales clerk hesitated for a few more moments, unsure of what to do, when a store manager happened to walk up and she handed the call to him.
She completed my transaction and I hovered nearby for a moment, trying to hear what the manager was saying to this persistent caller. I was in the way, however, as other shopper’s needed to move through the line, so I headed out to my car.
But the more I thought about this, the more it bothered me. If someone needed assistance with an issue at the store, any employee could have helped him. He didn’t need to call over and over for the same woman. And if he knew her on a personal level, why not simply call her cell phone. Why was he calling her employer over and over on the busiest week of the year?
When I got back to the office, I sat down at my desk and thought about whether or not I should pick up the phone and call the store. I thought about the crowds in the store and how the last thing the manager needed was to be taking calls from a busybody concerned citizen. But I made the call anyway.
I explained that I worked for a domestic violence shelter, and I had just been at the store. I described the phone call I overhead and then expressed my concerns, specifically that staff was giving out personal information about employees in what could potentially be a DV or stalking situation.
The manager was polite but insistent that their policy was to never give out personal information about staff members. I hesitated, then suggested that perhaps staff could use a refresher, as sometimes customers can be demanding, that they may not recognize that this could be a safety issue.
I cringed through the entire phone call. I hate sticking my nose in anyone else’s business. After all, the caller may have been a creditor or just a clueless friend.
But what if he wasn’t? What if he called back again, and again? What if the manager happened to mention to the woman, when she did come in for her shift, that a stranger who overheard a phone conversation was concerned enough about her safety to call the store. Would it make a difference? I don’t know.
Later that evening, as I was leaving the shelter, I happened to notice a car in an empty lot next door. It was parked askew across several spaces, and pointed towards the front entrance to the shelter. I got in my car, dialed the non-emergency number for the police and asked them to drive by and check it out. Then I left to go home.
The police called me back later to let me know they had spoken with the vehicle owner, and as it turns out it was all very innocent. I thanked him for taking the time to look into it and get back to me.
* * *
If you’re wondering what any of this has to do with gorillas and perception, let me explain. Did you know that every day, things happen all around us in plain sight, and we never notice them?
In a recently published study, radiologists were asked to look at five separate scans of patient’s lungs and look for abnormal nodules. Each scan had several such nodules. The last scan also had an image of a gorilla added to it, in the upper right corner. However, 83% of the radiologists did not notice the gorilla.
The study was designed to measure something called inattentional blindness, which is a psychological phenomenon characterized by the failure to notice a fully visible but unexpected object. Some things remain unseen because the brain is not expecting to see them.
The doctors were focused on looking for nodules, so they didn’t notice something as remarkable as a gorilla on a lung scan.
The truth is that our brains are constantly filtering out stimuli in our environment. It’s there, but we don’t see it, because our brains have deemed it non-essential or irrelevant. This is why, when we see a red Hyundai sedan on the lot, admire it for its uniqueness, purchase it and drive it around town, we suddenly notice that the world is full of red Hyundai sedans. They were always there. We just never noticed them before. They were never relevant until now.
Several years ago, I would not have noticed anything strange about the phone call at the store. I would have simply stood there, mildly annoyed that my transaction was held up. I would also probably think nothing of a car parked in an empty lot next to a DV shelter. I would not have seen any of these things because I would not have been trained to see them. Now? Now, I can’t not see them.
Abuse is not a rare phenomenon. One in every four women will experience some form of domestic violence. Consider how many women live in your neighborhood, or work in your office, or share the car with you on a crowded train, and think about that statistic. It’s happening all around us, silently, surreptitiously, outside of our perception.
If I were standing next to someone in a store who had arthritis or depression or autism or schizophrenia I wouldn’t know. I wouldn’t know because I don’t have an intimate knowledge of the signs and symptoms of those conditions. My brain isn’t trained to hone in on the warning signs. Just like the clerk at the store probably had no idea why she should question the motives of a persistent caller.
* * *
Two days ago I was sitting in the living room with my son, watching back-to-back episodes of Clean House. It is our guilty pleasure. We both sit aghast as the team walks into a new family’s home and the camera pans from one cluttered, unkempt room to the next. And then we both ooh and ahh at the end of the show when they reveal a transformed home.
We were not five minutes into the last episode when the red flags went up for me again. It was not simply the way the husband spoke down to his wife and referred to the home as his, nor the way he had claimed most of the house to himself and relegated her office to a small corner of one room. It was everything. The way he crossed his arms, his stare, his silence, his passive-aggressive comments, the tension in his face, the tone of his voice. And her. Her nervous laugh, her collapsed posture, her reassuring pats to his leg when he seemed irritated. Just everything.
I watched it and thought: domestic violence. Could I be wrong? I hope so. Perhaps my experiences have also skewed my perception so that I see danger where there is none. But I’d be willing to bet I was not wrong.
I’d be willing to bet a handsome sum that I was right.