The Invisible Gorilla

September 12, 2014

Sorry, I Wasn’t Paying Attention

I remember the first time I watched the Invisible Gorilla experiment, a short video that instructs you to count the basketball passes made by the players on one of two teams.  When the clip finished, I was embarrassed and amazed to learn I had completely missed seeing the person in a gorilla suit who stopped, pounded their chest and remained in the frame for an astonishingly long time.  It scared me.  If I missed something like that while performing such an easy task – counting passes – what else could I be missing?

In their book, The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us, the creators of that experiment, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, address this issue and several other ways our minds deceive us.  The example described above is what the authors call the “illusion of attention.”  Chabris and Simons discuss the illusion of attention at length, as well as the illusions of memory, confidence, knowledge, cause, and potential, all of which fall under the overall umbrella of illusions of intuition.

Knowledge of How Little We Know Is Power

This book caught our attention at Brandtrust® because it’s our mission to understand the inner workings of the human brain, and gain insight into not only what people do, but also why they do it.  As students of the social sciences, we are all too familiar with the fact that people have little insight into the way their minds work, and the reasons why they behave the way they do.  Chabris and Simons point out that understanding WHY the mind falls prey to such cognitive illusions can help us avoid their dangers.  By using real world examples (driving while on your cell phone, the errors in eye witness testimony, how we trust doctors, lawyers and other people of authority more if they exude confidence), the book is not only insightful, but also fun to read.

Remembering Through Rose-Colored Glasses

We remember things and events more vividly and more readily when they are emotionally significant to us.  In what they call the illusion of memory, the authors address the pliability of memory and how what we think we remember is not always what actually happened.  We embellish, we create non-existent details and we think we remember more than we do when recalling emotional moments.  Is this really a problem, as the authors lead us to believe?

I asked my sister to recall her wedding day for me – arguably the happiest day of her life, to this point.  She was married two years ago and I thought this would be the perfect test of how we recall memories, since I was there. She remembered that it rained that morning, told me about the beauty of the ceremony and recalled there being the most beautiful rainbow when they exited the church.  As she went on to describe an evening filled with dancing and joy, I realized she was not only adding happier little details that hadn’t actually happened (such as the rainbow), but she was also omitting some of the less pleasant aspects of the day (like a guest spilling wine on her gown).  Does this make her a liar?  Of course not!  Is it dangerous that she could construct such false memories, or just choose to completely forget unhappy moments?  We say we are who we remember ourselves to be.  If that’s true, what is the harm in remembering our lives a little more pleasantly?

We can’t always trust what is most certain to us

I do see where the trouble lies with the illusion of memory when it comes to more serious matters, like politics or in the authors’ example of a 911 call about a stabbing.  In these cases, memory distortion can have serious effects. However, when it comes to my own personal narrative (and my sister’s), I prefer things to be just a little too good to be true.

We’re also affected by the illusion of knowledge.  Albert Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”  It’s simple – we don’t know as much as we think we know.  So often, we mistake our knowledge of what happens with WHY it is happening; we mistake the feeling of familiarity with actual knowledge.

On the one hand, this book made me ask myself, “can I trust nothing?” Should I be skeptical of everything I used to think was certain?  I see why these illusions can be dangerous. But on the other hand, I believe there are also positive things that come from these false impressions. Actually,  I don’t mind walking through the world believing I have a basic understanding of how things work. I enjoy looking back at my fondest memories and reliving the joy I felt, even if my version of events isn’t 100% accurate. After all, isn’t it really the illusion of knowledge that makes us confident enough to sail forward in life?

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