The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us

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Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons
Page: 320 | Buy this book

Let's say you're watching a video of kids throwing a basketball back and forth. Some are wearing black and some are wearing white. Your job is to count the number of passes thrown by the white-clad team. You're concentrating. Suddenly, a woman in a gorilla suit saunters across the screen. You're going to notice her, right? Maybe not: half of viewers actually don't. If you didn't see the gorilla, what other things might you be wrong about? The answer is, quite a lot. Most of reality, the authors argue, is passing you by.

What's the Big Deal?

Maybe you've already read about Chabris's and Simons's famous gorilla experiment in Malcolm Gladwell's 2001 New Yorker piece. But you probably don't know about all the other human follies these two authors have studied. There are six big ones: (1) We don't notice the unexpected, like a prancing gorilla, even when it's right in front of us. (2) We forget things that happened and remember things that didn't happen. (3) We assume that confidence is a good measure of ability, even though any idiot can be confident. (4) We think we know much more than we actually do. (5) We mistake correlation for causation and see patterns where there aren't any. (6) We're all too ready to believe that "vast reservoirs of untapped mental ability exist in our brains, just waiting to be accessed—if only we knew how" (page 186). Learning about all these mental traps will make you feel simultaneously very smart (because hey, now you know about them!) and very dumb (you're probably going to fall victim to them anyway).

Buzz Rating

Seed ran a long interview with Simons this month. The Wall Street Journal cited the book's thesis as an explanation for the financial crisis. Even the airline mags are fascinated.

One-Breath Author Bio

Chabris is a psychologist at Union College; Simons is a psychologist at the University of Illinois. Together, they won the "prestigious" 2004 Ig Nobel gag prize in psychology for their gorilla video. (Winners in other fields that year included the guy who invented karaoke and the author of a paper called "The Effect of Country Music on Suicide.")

The Book, in Their Words

"We all believe that we are capable of seeing what's in front of us, of accurately remembering important events from our past, of understanding the limits of our knowledge, of properly determining cause and effect. But these intuitive beliefs are often mistaken ones … It is surprising how often we really have no clue" (from the introduction).

"It's the next [blank]!"

How about the next Freakonomics? Or the next Blink? How We Decide? The Black Swan? Any recent counterintuitive pop-psychology book will work as a comparison: this is one of a flood of books written to make us think (and think again) about how we think. As the saying goes, people who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like, and there are a lot of people who like this sort of thing.

Don't Miss These Bits

1. Smarten up! If you insist on talking on your cell phone—or, God forbid, texting—while driving, get off the road. Then turn to page 22 for a good explanation of why you are being utterly reckless even though you think you're fine behind the wheel. (Seriously, quit it.) Similarly, are you forgoing vaccination for your kids (page 173)? Do you think that listening to Mozart will make you smarter (page 186)? The authors would like a word with you.

2. The gorilla experiment is just that: an experiment. But it has a real analogue in Gene Weingarten's Pulitzer-winning stunt that turned violin virtuoso Joshua Bell into a street musician for a day. You'd probably notice one of the world's preeminent violinists playing for spare change, wouldn't you? Chances are you wouldn't, thanks to "inattentional blindness": if you're focusing on your commute and not expecting to see the maestro on a street corner, you'll probably walk right by. In 45 minutes, after being passed by about 1,000 people, Bell made a measly $37, most of which was from the sole person who recognized him (page 27).

3. Did legendary college basketball coach Bob Knight choke a recruit when he was at Indiana and, if so, why is the recruit the only one of many witnesses who says that's what happened? Is everyone else lying to cover up for Knight, or is the recruit misremembering the event? Did Hillary Clinton consciously lie when she said she remembered being under sniper fire in Bosnia, or is it possible she really does recall something that didn't happen? For that matter, do you remember where you were when you heard about 9/11? Are you sure? Fact-check it and you may find you're wrong. Chapter 2 is incredibly unsettling in its dissection of the fallibility of memory. Apparently, not only do we remember things incorrectly, we can actually plagiarize other people's memories (page 62), hearing their stories and internalizing them as having happened to us instead. Read this and you'll never trust a memoir again.

4. What do the engineers of Boston's disastrous Big Dig and the engineers of the even more disastrous financial crash have in common? Ask Yogi Berra: "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future" (page 125). If you like seeing experts taken down a peg or two, chapter 4 is for you.

5. If you've seen the gorilla experiment already, check out on Simons's YouTube channel. Be sure to watch the whole thing. That's as close as we're getting to a spoiler; this one is too good to ruin.

Swipe This Critique:

"Gosh, Your Honor, I just didn't notice what was happening right in front of me. I must have been suffering from diminished mental function." Where have we heard this before? Oh, right. It's the "Twinkie defense." Some of the arguments in this book seem ripe for abuse in court. Indeed, just in time for publication, The Invisible Gorilla Defense has made it into the hands of lawyers: earlier this month, a New Zealand attorney used the original experimental video to defend a guy against hit-and-run murder charges. The gorilla guys are not pleased by this. They write on their blog that the defendant apparently "knew he was driving toward the victim, but just wasn't trying to kill her (the defense is arguing for manslaughter). Oddly, if that is what happened, then the gorilla video was completely irrelevant to the case; if he knew that he was going to bump her with the car, that means he did see her and this wasn't an example of inattentional blindness at all. It was just a case of bad judgment (not surprising that he had lousy judgment—he had just tried to grab her purse)."

Factoid File

Apparently, 76 percent of people believe that subliminal messages [buy NEWSWEEK] can cause people to buy [NEWSWEEK] things. Alas [NEWSWEEK!], this is untrue.

Blurbotism

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Dan Ariely, Daniel Gilbert, Steven Pinker, Nicholas Christakis, Jerome Groopman, and Michael Shermer can't be wrong. (We assumed Gladwell was just on vacation when blurb time came around—until we got to page 171, where Chabris and Simons critique one of his arguments as "follow[ing] only from a retrospective narrative bias and not from an experiment." Awkward!)

Gradebook


Prose:
The prose may not be lyrical, but that's OK. It's more important that it be straightforward and trustworthy, which it is.

Construction: Six categories of human fallacies make it easy to understand. Only complaint? The too-neat categories almost guarantee something was left out.

Miscellaneous: Which would you rather read, a description of a psych lab experiment or a story about a smart person who did a boneheaded thing? Yeah, us too. The book has both, but it leans a little heavily toward the former. More stupid real-life antics, please!