Book Review-The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us

Gorillas aren’t exactly easy to miss. If you saw one, you’d expect to realize it. However, our expectations and reality aren’t always the same. In a famous experiment, Christopher Chabris, Daniel Simons, and their colleagues showed people a video asking them to count the passes between people wearing white shirts on a basketball court. Some people got the counts right and some did not, but that’s not the point. The point was to see how many people would notice the gorilla. Half of the people didn’t. The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us is a journey into the place of questioning our assumptions about what we should and should not know.

The Invisible Gorilla

It’s impossible. I couldn’t have missed the gorilla in the video. You must have switched the videos. If there were a gorilla in a video I was watching of people on a basketball court, I’d notice it. These and similar comments were common. Our common sense says that we’ll recognize something that is that different, abnormal, and important. Except half of people didn’t. Not because they were inattentive but precisely because they were being attentive – to something else.

While we believe we can pay attention to everything happening around us, we know that we cannot. There’s simply too much information coming at us for us to fully process and make sense out of it. That’s why we ignore so much of what’s happening around us. Change or Die explains that our reticular activating system (RAS) is responsible for what we pay attention to and what we do not. Incognito provides the other half of the equation by explaining how our brains make up information that’s missing. Basically, we have some small subset of the world around us that we perceive, and we make up the rest.

These combined give us the perception that we’d see the gorilla while simultaneously only taking in a small amount of the information around us.

Put Out the Fire

The Intuitions

The book covers the following intuitions that may deceive us:

  • Attention
  • Memory
  • Confidence
  • Knowledge
  • Cause
  • Potential

Because we believe that we intuitively know how things work, we can be misled into poor decisions. Consider for a moment the legislative push in the United States to eliminate the use of phones in hands while driving a car. Many states are now requiring hands-free technology when using phones. This is despite the fact that research doesn’t show any difference between the results of phones in hands and hands-free conversations.

Intuitively, we believe that hands-free should be no different than speaking with someone in the car with us. However, the research seems to prove that we do treat it differently, because when we enter a period of high attention to driving, we pause the conversation in the car. The passenger knows why we’re pausing the conversation, so we feel justified in doing so. When the other person isn’t in the car, we feel awkward pausing the conversation to focus on the traffic around us.

In this case, and in many others, the intuition doesn’t match the reality we find when we research it.

Evidence to the Contrary

One of the key challenges with our intuition is that it’s based on our experiences. Our intuition pattern matches against the things that we’ve seen and done. Since few of us encounter situations where we’re confronted with evidence of our failure to properly manage multiple tasks – like driving and talking – we assume that we can. After all, if we’ve done it this many times, why can’t we do it once more?

This is the kind of rationale that was prevalent in the 1980s, when, in the United States, we began to crack down on drunk driving. Groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and Students Against Drunk Driving (SADD) started to push for tougher laws, greater awareness, and fewer losses due to drunken driving. People would argue that they’ve driven after a few drinks for years and nothing ever bad happened. That may be true in their case – thus far. Because any kind of accident is such a rare occurrence – thankfully – we get no feedback about how our behaviors are increasing our risk.

The Illusion of Memory

Our memories cannot, as much as we may like to believe it, record and replay events accurately. As was pointed out in Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), every time we go to recall a memory, we subtly change it based on our current understanding. We believe that our memories are precisely accurate recollections of the past because they appear that way to us. However, we are frequently surprised to see how things were different when viewed from an actual recording.

We should realize that we have no way of encoding every experience into our memories with full fidelity. Despite the amazing capacity of the brain, we’d quickly run out of storage. Instead, our brains store key concepts and relationships. We connect nuggets of data so that we can regenerate the situation – rather than recall it.

Our fallacy of memory has convicted too many innocent people. We’ve discovered through DNA analysis that many convicted people were the wrong people, and decades after their arrest they’ve finally been freed through the work to combat the undue weight given to eyewitness testimony in criminal cases.

Change Blindness

Movie gaffs are famous. In one part of a scene, something is present and in the next version of the scene, it’s not. Waffles convert to pancakes. Windows that are shot up are suddenly fixed and things flop from left to right and vice versa. There are specific people whose job it is to ensure that there is continuity in a series of shots for a scene, and even though it’s their only job, things are often missed. The good news is that most of us – due to our illusion of attention – miss these gaffs all together until someone points them out to us.

The truth is that we’re all generally very unlikely to notice small changes. These changes don’t meet our threshold and therefore don’t register. We believe we should remember what happened seconds before… but we don’t.

False Memories

Abuse of any kind is a tragedy. It’s a failure of humanity to protect the weak. Nothing is more tragic than allegations of sexual abuse perpetrated against children. In the zeal to capture all of the perpetrators and to bring them to justice, we accidentally tripped over another problem with our memories – the fact that we can recall false memories.

Perhaps the easiest and most innocuous version of this is when we hear a story from a friend, and we make it our own. We can recall the event with sufficient detail, and therefore we believe it’s ours. While it’s embarrassing, it’s not particularly harmful.

What happens when you intentionally test the limits of false memories, as researchers did when they doctored photos of people as children, placing them in a hot air balloon. The adults knew they’d never ridden in a hot air balloon ride. However, they were asked to imagine themselves in this ride. Come back later and ask them if they’ve ever been in a hot air balloon, and many will say yes and recreate their initial imagination but as fact rather than as a flight of fancy. This strikingly easy research experiment shows how we can land with false memories of things that never happened.

Gary Ramona was accused of repeated sexual abuse of his daughter Holly. The accusation came from memories induced by a therapist under the influence of drugs known only to Holly as “truth serum.” Gary lost his marriage and his high-paying job. Ultimately, he was able to sue the therapist and win in a suit that claims the therapist planted the memories in Holly. It got him a monetary award and the summary dismissal of a civil suit filed by Holly after the fact, but it didn’t repair the damage that had been done.

False memories are dangerous things. It’s tragic – and predictable – that, in most of these cases, there’s no way to verify things one way or the other. When it comes to memories, when there’s no direct evidence, we tend to side with more people’s memories than fewer. When there are only two people involved, we’re stuck.

Fixed Memories

Sometimes we develop memories of events that are “flashbulb memories” – that is, the memory is sealed because of a significant event. These memories, though perceived as more vivid, are not any more accurate than regular memories. They are, however, more firmly anchored. As a result, they can sometimes be more difficult to dislodge.

Even in cases where irrefutable evidence can be produced, people may be unwilling or unable to change their memories about events. Instead of reprocessing their world view given the new information, they reject it because it doesn’t fit their beliefs. (See confirmation bias in Thinking, Fast and Slow.) This is a common challenge with humans leading to divides that can last decades.

The Illusions of Confidence and Knowledge

You’ll accept the testimony of a more confident witness more readily than one who is less confident – even if the objective measure of certainty are the same. We tend to elect officials that seem like they know what they’re doing – even if they do not. When coupled with the Dunning-Kruger effect, this is a very dangerous place to be.

The Dunning-Kruger effect says that those who know the least are over-confident in what they know. Those who are experts err, too – but generally by slightly underestimating what they know. (See How We Know What Isn’t So.) These sorts of errors show up when you ask people whether they’re better leaders than the average. The answers generally come up in the 60-80% range of people believing they’re better leaders than average – which is, of course, statistically impossible.

More Information

Sometimes our perception of knowledge is distorted by the volume of information that we get. We believe, for instance, that we’ll do better with investing if we have more data about how our portfolio is performing. The truth is that it causes us to make changes more quickly and make less money in the long run. Instead of information helping us to make better decisions, we overreact, and we perform poorly. (See The Information Diet for more.)

Audio cable companies used to advertise all sorts of unique features of their cables when audiophiles in a blind test couldn’t tell the difference between the cables and a metal coat hanger. The truth is the illusion of information is all that’s needed to cause us to make decisions.

Infographics have become quite popular. They convey a very small amount of actual information in a graphic and therefore compelling way. (See the book Infographics for more.) When speaking of neurological scans included in neurological articles, the authors refer to it as “brain porn.” Even when the scans don’t convey any additional information, people rate the article as more understandable with the meaningless scans.

The Illusion of Cause

One of the arguably most painful illusions we’ll talk about is the illusion of cause. That’s because of the work of the discredited Andrew Wakefield and his publication (since retracted) in The Lancet that claimed the cause of autism was the MMR vaccine. I’ll spare you the details, but we’re so wired to find simple, singular causes, that it seemed probable. After all, the rise in autism cases tracked the rise in immunization. (However, it also tracked the rise of piracy off the coast of Somalia, but no one thought that was a cause.)

This is one of the greatest negative impacts because, despite Andrew Wakefield having lost his license to practice medicine as a result of the problems with the article, people still vehemently believe that vaccination causes autism and as a result fail to vaccinate their children, leaving them unnecessarily susceptible to disease.

The Illusion of Potential

We’ve probably all heard the claim that we only use 10% of our brains. We’ve heard that we have limitless potential if we just reach out and grab it. The problem is that it’s not true. Steven Kotler in The Rise of Superman studies amazing athletes and shows how they perform at levels well in excess of anything you or I could through training and entering flow. However, their feats of accomplishment are narrow. Being a good basketball player doesn’t make you a good baseball player or vice versa.

More importantly, while we may only be using 10% of our brain at any one time (which is itself a dubious claim), that may be because there’s no way to get enough energy (glucose) to the brain to support everything being turned on at once. Just like the appliances in our house, we can’t turn everything on all at once without blowing a circuit.

This has not stopped people from trying to find easy ways to enhance our potential. Without any study on children, it was proposed that playing Mozart made them smarter. Out of that came a number of products, including Baby Einstein, which sold to Disney for a nice profit. The actual results of testing were a reduction in the verbal fluency of babies – a fact that these companies would love for you to forget.

The truth is that we do all have great potential – but it’s not found in simple quick fixes or radical jumps. Working diligently, as Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool explain in Peak, is a path toward that potential, but it’s neither quick nor easy. It’s intentional, disciplined work over a long period of time. That being said, you may find that reading The Invisible Gorilla can help you avoid a few pitfalls and to reach your potential.