The Invisible Gorilla (a Review)

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.

This 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 lower anxiety.

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.

The 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 world.”

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.

The 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.

Another 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.

Most 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.

The 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.

The 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.

The 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!

In 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).”

What makes the six illusions dangerous is the mistaken confidence we each have in the accuracy of our own perceptions, memories, and knowledge.

Would 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.

You 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 with too:

“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.

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