Selective Attention in Human Trafficking?

Selective Attention in Human Trafficking?

Dita Vogel, University of Bremen

February 2015

Identifying trafficking in human beings is a complex task because the definition is so tricky – it requires our full attention. Expertise and focus are needed to distinguish trafficking from other abusive acts. Support agents and law enforcers all over the world are trained to do this seriously and skilfully. An example from a training handbook:

It is important to properly screen persons referred as trafficking victims to service delivery organizations for assistance to ensure that they are in fact trafficking victims and not smuggled or other irregular migrants, or other individuals in an abusive or vulnerable situation who may be in need of assistance and/or protection. (IOM, S. 17)

This screening task requires selective attention, asking the agents to pay attention to one specific abusive practice. But what if this tight focus stops us noticing other things?

If you have not yet come across the selective attention test by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, please take two minutes to try it here before you continue reading. You  will see people in black and white T-shirts passing basketballs. You are asked to count the passes of the team wearing white, a task that requires your complete concentration.

As researchers we are also observers of a specific field. Our project addresses measures and policies against human trafficking. Research on the DemandAT-project tries to strike a good balance between explicitly analysing demand-side actions against trafficking [counting passes of the white team], but also to answer the question whether this approach is the most adequate to address abusive phenomena in the real world, or whether other approaches would be more helpful, for example analysing supply-side policies [observing the black team], while keeping our minds open to phenomena which may not be captured with these terms and may still be relevant for an adequate approach to the field [notice the gorilla]. Therefore, the project is designed to approach the topic from different angles, making it more likely that we do not overlook any features that are relevant for designing better policies. Are there any invisible gorillas?

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily express the views of the DemandAT project consortium as whole.