Tips for High-Impact Teamwork: “The Neck Problem”—How We Focus on Different Things Based on Our Experiences

Tyler Reimschisel, MD, MHPE

In my last article in this Tips for High-Impact Teamwork series, we discussed what Nicholas Epley calls the “lens problem:” We each see things differently based on myriad factors, including our genetic makeup, our emotions, the context of the situation, our culture and the history of our prior experiences (Epley, 99-116). In this article, I would like to discuss what Epley calls the “neck problem:” Different people take in different things during the same experience. 

As you may recall from my last article, the lens problem occurs when two people look at the exact same thing and see something different due to several factors, including those listed above. For example, you and I can listen to the same conversation at our team’s weekly meeting and construct different realities of that conversation based on our different lenses. 

It turns out there is another layer of complexity in how we perceive and construct reality about our shared lived experiences. When we attend the same team meeting, we don’t actually hear and see the same things. In fact, we attend to, take in, notice and process different elements of the meeting. You may notice one team member’s nonverbal responses in the conversation, while at the same time, I pick up on a different team member’s tone of voice and choice of words (Epley, 91-92). The fact that we are attending to different information during the same situation is what Epley refers to as the “neck problem.” He calls it a “problem” because each of us typically fails “…to recognize that what you are looking at, attending to, or thinking may be different from what others are perceiving.” 

In his book Popular, Mitch Prinstein offers an extended example of how the neck problem can occur in our daily lives:

Consider for a moment the huge amount of complex social information your brain must encode every day. Like a giant filter, it must sift through all the stimuli around you, make sense of them, and then decide what deserves your attention. Consider the few moments it takes to enter your workplace. As you pass dozens of people – in a big city it might be hundreds or thousands – your brain automatically reads each of their facial expressions, postures, fragments of speech, and spatial relationships to you, all to determine what social cues are present and require action. If someone nods at the very edge of your peripheral vision, you respond immediately by nodding back and smiling without even thinking. If someone with a worried expression is gazing past you, you turn and look over your shoulder almost instinctively. But if something no less noteworthy takes place – say, a plane flying overhead – only young children will notice and react. The rest of us know that such an event is rarely relevant to us, so we screen it out. We don’t only ignore it; research reveals that if asked later, we would be quite certain that there had never been a plane at all (Prinstein, 155-157, emphasis added).

The upshot is that our brains filter and process only some of the stimuli that our senses take in, and this occurs below our level of conscious awareness. Yet we are constantly assuming that what we process and what others process from the same situation are identical. It sure seems reasonable to assume that the same situation would yield the same lived experience, but the lens problem shows this is frequently an incorrect assumption. 

The neck problem leads Prinstein to ask a series of provocative questions about how we take in the reality around us. What are we missing? What do we filter out? And, on the other hand, what are we overly attuned to? 

He quotes a study by Bangee in which they researched how our biases influence what we observe and how our past influences those observations (Bangee et al, 2014). Young adults in the study were divided into those who had a history of social isolation and loneliness and those who had a history of social success. Each subject was then asked to attend to the details of eight videos that depicted typical high school scenes, such as teens interacting in the cafeteria and standing near their lockers. Each video had a variety of social cues and human interactions, including smiling, laughing, arguing, ignoring and other postures of social engagement and social rejection. Subjects wore a device that tracked their eye movements as they watched the videos. 

The researchers discovered that each subject attended to different scenes in the videos, and their histories influenced what they focused on: 

People in the study with prior histories of social success, for example, remained focused predominantly on the positive interactions in the videos. For 60 percent to 70 percent of the time, their gaze remained fixed on the people who were smiling, nodding, or including one another. They looked at the people engaged in negative social interactions less frequently, and when they did, they maintained their gaze briefly. In contrast, those with histories of social isolation and loneliness scarcely looked at the positive scenes at all. For about 80 percent of the time, however, their pupils remained fixed on the actions that depicted social exclusion and negativity. It was as if they had watched a completely different movie altogether – focusing far more intently on cues that were barely noticed by others at all (Prinstein, 156-157, emphasis added). 

In other words, two individuals watching the same video, participating in the same meeting, or working on the same task will focus on, attend to and process different elements of the activity based on their histories. Our lived experiences influence how we construct the reality of the world around us (lens problem) as well as what we focus on and take in from that world (neck problem). Therefore, as Anais Nin observes, “We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.”

The lens problem and the neck problem are examples of egocentric biases. Like our other biases, they are ubiquitous. One refers to differences in attention (the neck problem), and the other refers to differences in interpretation (the lens problem). Epley contends that the lens problem is harder to address than the neck problem (Epley, 112). 

Later in this series, I will discuss ways to mitigate these and other biases in how our brains construct our realities. For now, my main purpose is to raise our conscious awareness of the fact that these biases exist and can help explain some of the differences, tensions and overt conflicts that often arise within our teams. They cause team challenges because we frequently attribute differences or tensions to the other person’s failure to see reality “correctly” instead of attributing the differences to variations in what we focus on, what we emphasize and how we interpret what we experience. Instead of framing the challenge as a difference in perspective from which to learn, our brain automatically frames it as “I am right and they are wrong.” This is called naïve realism, and I will explore this crucial aspect of how our brain functions in the next article.

Before wrapping up this article, I want to take a moment to remind you about the new Tuesday Connections opportunities that our office is coordinating. Starting in the new year, each Tuesday at noon we will offer various ways to connect with students, staff and faculty at CWRU and at other institutions. January’s schedule includes the following activities:

Jan. 9: Connect through Play

Come to the atrium of the Samson Pavilion to play various board games with others in our community. 

Jan. 16: Themed Conversations

Bring your lunch to the atrium of the Samson Pavilion as we discuss the important topic of Wellness and how we can enhance our own wellness and the wellness of others. 

Jan. 23: Connecting Book Club

Join us in person or by Zoom for a stimulating discussion of The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker. Engage in the conversation by Zoom from anywhere! We will continue discussing this book during our February book club conversation on Feb. 28.  

We hope these experiences help broaden your network and build stronger relationships. Please check out our Connections webpage for more details. The Huddle Calendar also lists upcoming activities for 2024.

I hope each of you has a wonderful, restful holiday season and happy new year with ample time to rejuvenate. 


Bangee M et al. “Loneliness and attention to social threat in young adults”. Personality and Individual Differences, 2014;63:16-23.

Epley N. Mindwise. Vintage Books, 2014.

Prinstein M. Popular: Finding happiness and success in a world that cares too much about the wrong kinds of relationships. Penguin Books, 2017.