The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO


July 30, 2010

Linda Cannon, book review: Cognitive experiment leads to memorable book

JOPLIN, Mo. — I’m a sucker for things about how the mind works, so I was happy to read “The Invisible Gorilla: and Other Ways our Intuitions Deceive Us” by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons.

Both are cognitive psychologists who are professors at Union College (N.Y.) and the University of Illinois, respectively. If this sort of thing sounds interesting, go to before you read further and do the gorilla experiment.

So, if you did the experiment, how did you do?

I barely saw the object in question, and I had read enough of the book that I should have been aware of what was going to happen. In short, you watch the video while performing a certain task. Either you see the object or you don’t -- hence the title of the book and the basic premise.

The thing is, we all make assumptions about the world and how we live in it. We are all, sadly, often as wrong as can be.

The authors split the experience into six “everyday illusions.” They are the illusions of attention, memory, confidence, knowledge, cause and potential.

The illusion of attention gives us the invisible gorilla problem, common in everyday life. It’s where one thinks he or she is aware of all that’s going on around their person, but in fact are largely oblivious.

That’s because humans can actually pay attention only to a very small portion of what’s going on. We focus on one thing, really, and everything else is likely to be missed.

I shall leave the gorilla to tantalize you, but let’s talk motorcycles, which are often on the losing end in vehicle collisions. Motorcyclists frequently complain that car drivers ignore them, but it appears to be the case that they really don’t see them!

That is, they see them with their eyes, but not their brains. Most drivers are looking for what they expect (as we all do) and so they see cars and trucks, but not motorcycles or bicycles or pedestrians.

The good news is that if you live somewhere that has a lot of motorcycle, bicycle or pedestrian traffic, you are much less likely to be hit simply because car drivers are aware that such things exist. Simply put, we don’t see what we don’t expect to see.

Similarly, while infrequent, runway crashes between airplanes are terrible disasters and everyone always says, “Why didn’t they pull up?” Again, traffic on runways is extremely well managed as a rule, so pilots don’t expect to see anything (including 727s!) on their runway and so they don’t see them.

This has been shown with experiments using flight simulators in addition to real life events so, astonishing as it may be, it proves the point. We all see (and hear) things that we simply don’t register because, try though we might, we really aren’t built to multi-task. We get tunnel vision because that’s the way our brains are built.

The illusion of memory is also pretty scary. Turns out that our memories don’t work the way most of us have been told they do.

I’m sure most of us were told that the mind is like a camera and records everything we’ve ever seen, heard, etc.

Not true. Memory is a fragile and changeable thing. We think people are lying because they remember things differently. Well, that’s just it. They truly remember it differently. Our memories are colored by many things and are altered by emotion, time, and experience.

The primary example given is the famous “choking” incident involving Bobby Knight. Everyone present had conflicting memories of the event, and it was only some time later that a video surfaced showing, essentially, that everyone not only remembered the event differently, but wrongly.

The illusions of confidence, knowledge, cause and potential are also very interesting to learn about, but I’m afraid that you’ll have to find out about those yourself. To paraphrase: Everyone thinks we all live in Lake Wobegon and we’re all above average (illusions of confidence, knowledge, and potential); and the fact that I drive a Toyota and Toyotas have had problems recently does not necessarily indicate that my driving a Toyota causes everyone else’s Toyota to have problems (illusion of cause).

I promise you that reading this book will affect how you view the world around you, like it or not, unless you are more able than most to deny what repeated experiments have proven to be true. Interesting and disturbing stuff

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