I just finished what I believe to be an important book: The Invisible Gorilla by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. It's about the numerous ways our intuitions deceive us.
is a surprisingly uplifting book. Insights into the fallibility of our
own memories and perceptions can improve our lives, reduce depression,
help us make better decisions, ease conflicts between people, and
The authors have exceptional
credentials: One has a PhD from Harvard and the other has a PhD from
Cornell. And they conducted some the most famous experiments in the
history of psychology, including “the invisible gorilla” experiment.
book is jam-packed with excellent, real-life examples to illustrate
the six everyday illusions, and the practical lessons to be drawn from
them. One of the illusions, for example, is the illusion of attention.
We are unaware of how much we miss, and the unawareness is not
self-correcting. The authors write, “The problem is that we lack
positive evidence for our lack of attention...We are aware only of the
unexpected objects we do notice, not the ones we have missed.
Consequently, all the evidence we have is for good perception of our
But each illusion is compounded by our
unawareness of the illusion itself. “The fact that we don't see
everything,” they write, “would be far less problematic if we didn't
think we see everything.”
Although the authors are
pointing out the six illusions because they lead to errors in judgment,
the illusions also lead to the same thought-mistakes
(cognitive distortions) that lead to unnecessary anxiety and
depression. The six illusions are the ultimate source of innumerable
marital spats and misunderstandings between people. These same illusions
are the source of the demoralization that makes people give up on
important goals prematurely and fail in school.
research the authors discuss is relevant to current controversies on
the legality of cell phone use while driving. What most people don't
realize (and what experiments consistently show) is that you can look
right at something and not see it if your attention is on something
else (like a cell phone conversation).
And even though
many people have recently become aware that talking on a cell phone
while driving impairs one's ability to drive (and some states have even
passed laws against the use of hand-held phones) what most people have
not yet realized is that studies show hands-free phones impair driving
just as much! Actually, phones don't impair driving; they impair
attention. But drivers are less likely to see unexpected things and are
slower to react even when talking on a hands-free phone.
surprising fact is that talking to a passenger sitting next to you in
the car doesn't hardly impair your driving ability at all! This book is
full of surprising and useful insights like that.
of us assume we would see something unexpected if we were looking. It
is a mistaken assumption, but something can be done about it. The
remedy is to look again and actually look for something unexpected.
When participants are warned ahead of time that something unexpected
might happen during the gorilla experiment, most of them see the gorilla.
book is filled with one interesting study after another, presented in a
way I found compelling. There is nothing dry or boring in this book.
The authors do a good job of connecting what you're reading to many of
its real-life applications.
Where were you when you
first heard about planes flying into the Twin Towers on 9/11? Most
people remember vivid details of that day, many of which are mistaken.
In several studies of this event memory, the findings were consistent:
1) people had vivid memories they believed were accurate, 2) the more
time that elapses, the more those memories change, and 3) their
confidence in their own memory's accuracy remains consistently high for
significant events, even though their memories are no more accurate
for that event than for anything else. And if you are like most people,
you won't believe this is true for you, regardless of the studies.
authors also wrote about the “Mozart Effect” at considerable length
because it so clearly illustrates a particular cognitive illusion: The
illusion of potential. According to the media hype, listening to Mozart
can increase your IQ. The authors describe the original experiment and
subsequent experiments by researchers trying (unsuccessfully) to
duplicate the results.
“The illusion of potential”
doesn't mean we cannot grow and change; it means “the idea that there
is an easy shortcut” is an illusion. The authors do a good job
debunking an aspect of that illusion: The myth that we only use 10% of our brains.
book contains so many interesting experiments with surprising,
counterintuitive results, I want to tell you about all of them, but I
can't. But here's a good example: Subjects watched a video of a bank
robber, and then half of them spent five minutes writing a description
of the robber's face. The other half spent the same five minutes doing
an unrelated task. When asked to select the robber from a lineup, those
who wrote the description were much worse at identifying the right man!
another study, researchers found that biking or walking in cities was
less dangerous the more common it was in that city. Why? Because where
lots of people walk and bike, drivers expect to see them. In places
where such things are rare, drivers don't expect them, and therefore
often don't see them.
Another illusion stems from the
fact that our brains are extraordinarily good at recognizing patterns.
So good, in fact, that we sometimes see patterns (and attribute
meaning) to nothing but random accident. They had some great
illustrations of this phenomenon, like the image of the Virgin Mary
that appeared on someone's grilled cheese sandwich. “The 'Nun Bun' was a
cinnamon pastry whose twisty rolls eerily resembled the nose and jowls
of Mother Teresa,” the authors wrote. “It was found in a Nashville
coffee shop in 1996, but was stolen on Christmas in 2005. 'Our Lady of
the Underpass' was another appearance by the Virgin Mary, this time in
the guise of a salt stain under Interstate 94 in Chicago that drew huge
crowds and stopped traffic for months. Other cases include the Hot
Chocolate Jesus, Jesus on a shrimp tail dinner, Jesus in a dental
x-ray, and Cheesus (a Cheeto purportedly shaped like Jesus).”
makes the six illusions dangerous is the mistaken confidence we each
have in the accuracy of our own perceptions, memories, and knowledge.
you like to be less gullible? More reasonable? Better able to see
what's wrong when someone is making their case? Less depressed or
anxious? Read the book, The Invisible Gorilla. Another excellent book on the same topic is: How We Know What Isn't So, by Thomas Gilovich.
might think there's nothing sexy or uplifting about a book that
basically tells you your memory isn't as good as you think, your
abilities are not as great as you hope, and you don't notice as much as
you believe. But there are plenty of practical, positive, personal
benefits to understanding these illusions, and the authors put one of
the best ones in the very last paragraph of their book, which I will end
“When you think about the world with an
awareness of everyday illusions, you won't be as sure of yourself as
you used to be, but you will have new insights into how your mind
works, and new ways of understanding why people act the way they do.
Often, it's not because of stupidity, arrogance, ignorance, or lack of
focus. It's because of the everyday illusions that affect us all. Our
final hope is that you will always consider this possibility before you
jump to a harsher conclusion.”
Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.