If you’ve spent any time on YouTube over the last few years (and you know you have), you’ve likely seen the video of the invisible gorilla experiment (if you’ve somehow missed it, catch yourself up here). The researchers who conducted that study, Dan Simons and Chris Chabris, didn’t realize that they were about to create an instant classic—a psychology study mentioned alongside the greats, and known well outside the slim confines of psych wonks. Milgram taught us about our sheepish obedience to authority; Mischel used marshmallows to teach us about delayed gratification; and Simons and Chabris used a faux gorilla to teach us that we are not the masters of attention we think we are.
The duo’s new book, The Invisible Gorilla, and Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us, is every bit as engaging as the original study was innovative.Using the invisible gorilla study as a jumping off point, the authors go on to explain why so many of our intuitions are off the mark, though we’re typically convinced otherwise. I recently had a chance to chat with Dan Simons about the study, the book, and why we’re usually in the dark about how our minds really work.
DiSalvo: What gave you and Chris Chabris the idea for the invisible gorilla study?
Simons: Our study was actually based on some earlier research by Ulric Neisser conducted in the 1970s. His studies were designed to tease apart whether people focus attention on regions of space or on objects. He wanted to see whether, if people were focusing on one part of a scene, they would automatically notice if something unexpected passed through that “spotlight” of attention. To do that, he made all the objects partly transparent so that they all occupied the same space and could pass through each other. He found that people often missed an unexpected event. But, the strange, ghostly appearance of the displays gave people a ready excuse for why they missed the unexpected event. Oddly, no one followed up on those studies, so we thought we’d give them another look and see whether people would miss something that was fully visible and easy to see. We did our study as part of an undergraduate class project in a class that I was teaching.
Why the gorilla suit?
We were looking for something dramatic so that if people missed it, they would be surprised when we showed it to them again. We also wanted something that would have some humor value to it. Fortunately for us, Jerome Kagan, an eminent developmental psychologist at Harvard, happened to have one in his lab.
I remember the first time I watched the YouTube video of the study and was completely dumfounded when the question, “Did you see the gorilla?” flashed on the screen. As researchers, I can imagine getting that reaction from people is like hitting a home run.
It surprised us the first time we ran the study – we didn’t expect it to work as well as it did. It’s still a thrill to present the video to an audience and have people miss it. Our intuition that we’ll notice something as visible as a gorilla is a hard one to overcome. It took me years before I could trust that some people in almost any audience would miss it.
What do people tell you about their reaction afterwards?
Normally people can’t believe that they missed it. On occasion, they’ve accused us of switching the video. The intuition that we would notice makes it jarring for people to realize that they didn’t.
And that’s really the point, right, that we can’t know what we are missing until our attention is refocused on it?
That’s a big part of it. We can easily miss what’s right in front of us, but we don’t realize that we can. Part of the problem is that we’re only aware of the things we notice and we’re not aware of the things we didn’t notice. Consequently, we often have no idea what we’re missing.
Hence the myth of multi-tasking.
It depends on what you mean by multi-tasking. If you mean simultaneous attention shared across multiple tasks, then yes, it’s a myth. We typically cannot do two things simultaneously. We can perform multiple tasks one after another—a sort of serial tasking.
In the case of the first meaning, simultaneous attention across multiple tasks, why do you think so many of us are convinced we can do it?
I think a lot of people confuse these two possible ways of doing multiple tasks. Because we can do one task and then another, switching back and forth among them, we falsely believe we can do two at once. That confusion happens in part because we don’t realize how impaired we are when doing two things at once. We’re too distracted to notice that we’re distracted. That has dramatic consequences. For example, we can’t talk on the phone while driving because that requires doing two tasks at once rather than sequentially (and both require attention).
Where does the intuition originate?
Our intuitions are based on our experiences. The problem is that our daily experiences frequently support incorrect intuitions about how our minds work. We only are aware of the things we’ve noticed and we aren’t aware of the things we’ve missed, so we assume that we always notice things. We don’t notice when we’re distracted by multitasking, so we think we aren’t distracted. The same sort of principle explains many of our mistaken intuitions.
But why wouldn’t we develop an intuition from our experience that we can’t parse our attention?
Our experience is tied to our awareness. We are aware of what we notice, not of what we miss, so we develop an intuition based on noticing. The principle applies to multi-tasking: we are aware only that we are accomplishing multiple tasks, because our daily life demands it, but we aren’t aware that we’re not really doing them at the same time. As a result, we mistakenly assume that we can do two things at once. Given that we rarely encounter evidence to contradict our awareness — normally, there’s nobody around to point out the gorilla — we don’t learn when our intuitions are wrong.
We see people all the time who know very bad things can happen from, as one example, texting while driving, but they still do it.
That’s true, but most people could drive much of their lives without having an accident. And the longer they go without having an accident, the more they are deluded into thinking they can drive and text safely. Fortunately, accidents are rare, but when they happen, they are catastrophic. Knowing that we have these limits and taking them to heart can save our lives. We learn best from our own experiences, but in this case, you shouldn’t wait to experience the consequences of distracted driving for yourself.
I can’t help but notice how so much of what we’ve been discussing runs counter to the conclusions of one of the most popular non-fiction books out there: Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. Many people I’ve talked to who have read that book are convinced that we should trust our instincts instead of thinking things through.
The idea that intuition, gut instincts, and rapid decisions are a panacea for all of our decision making problems is really dangerous. Unfortunately, that’s the message that some people have taken from Gladwell’s book. Intuitions can be quite useful for some types of decisions, especially those that involve an emotional preference —who do you find most attractive, what ice cream tastes best—but they can lead us dangerously wrong when they are based on assumptions about how our minds work. Gladwell is an incredible storyteller, but some of the conclusions he reaches in Blink are problematic. Our work, and the work of other cognitive scientists, shows again and again that the intuitions people hold about how their minds work are often wrong. When you dig deeper into the material he covers in Blink, you see that many of the featured examples are of expert pattern recognition, and that’s a very different thing than simply trusting intuition or instinct.
Like the example of a quarterback acting decisively without having time to think?
Yes, that’s expert pattern recognition. Peyton Manning studies films for many hours in preparation for each game, and he has done that for years. Then, in a game situation, he recognizes the pattern really quickly, and that leads him to find the open receiver readily. That said, even expert pattern recognition is far from perfect. If you let Manning analyze the films at a leisurely pace, he’ll find things he missed during the game. The same principle applies to most experts. They can make reasonably good decisions quickly and seemingly based on intuition — they’ll outperform novices with only a glance. But given more time, even the experts often would make better decisions.
Yet the takeaway for many people is that “thinking” is a hindrance.
Thinking takes work, and the idea that we could go with our gut and do better is really appealing. Unfortunately, it’s often not true.
What can we expect as a follow up from you guys? Can you top the gorilla study?
It’s hard to top having people miss a gorilla. I do have a new paper that just came out in the new open-access journal I‑Perception. It talks about a new demonstration that I’ve called “The Monkey Business Illusion.” It’s on YouTube now. Basically, I wanted to see if people who knew about the original gorilla video would be immune to this sort of failure of awareness. Try it for yourself!
– David DiSalvo is a science and technology writer whose work appears in Scientific American Mind, Psychology Today and Mental Floss, among other magazines and websites. His book, tentatively titled “What Makes Your Brain Happy” (Prometheus Books) is scheduled for release in late 2011. Follow his blog here.