|May 12, 2010|
Think you understand professor's new book? Think again.
Are you a good judge of character? Are you observant? Perceptive? Knowledgeable? Do you have an excellent memory? Are you an accomplished multi-tasker?
According to “The Invisible Gorilla, And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us,” a new book co-authored by Assistant Psychology Professor Christopher Chabris, in these and other skills you’re almost certainly not as good as you think you are.
Published by Crown, the book tackles “six everyday illusions that profoundly influence our lives,” the authors write: “the illusions of attention, memory, confidence, knowledge, cause, and potential.”
The book, to be released Tuesday, May 18, is already generating positive reviews. The latest issue of Psychology Today states, “If the authors make you second-guess yourself 10 times today, they've done their job.”
And Kirkus Book Reviews calls it “A fascinating look at little-known illusions that greatly affect our daily lives ... Their readable book offers surprising insights into just how clueless we are about how our minds work and how we experience the world ... Bound to have wide popular appeal.”
Chabris and co-author Daniel Simons, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois, study visual cognition, which explores the brain mechanisms that govern visual attention. They are fascinated by how what we see (or don’t see) influences our perceptions of ourselves and of the world.
A central character is the gorilla of the title, which first “appeared” in an experiment conducted in the late 1990s by the authors while Simons was on the faculty at Harvard University and Chabris was a graduate student there.
This now-famous experiment (Malcolm Gladwell wrote about it in The New Yorker) asked subjects to watch a video of people passing basketballs back and forth. Their task: to count passes between people dressed in white and to ignore the passes of those in black. Midway through the clip, a person in a gorilla suit strolled into the middle of the action. The gorilla stopped, faced the camera, beat on its chest and then casually sauntered out of view.
Nearly half of the study participants who viewed the video didn’t see the gorilla at all, an example of “inattentional blindness,” or the failure to see something obvious because one’s mental resources are devoted to something else. The book offers many real-world examples of inattentional blindness, some of which have had dire, even fatal, consequences.
“The real problem is that you don’t notice what you don’t notice,” said Chabris, who joined the Union faculty in 2007. “So you never get any personal feedback about the things you never see, and therefore you think you are seeing much more than you are. This illusion can lead people to do dangerous things with a false sense of security, such as talk or text on a cell phone while driving.”
The book also explores the unreliability of memory; the unconscious – and often misplaced – faith we have in confident people; our near-hallucinatory belief in our own understanding of the world; our tendency to see patterns linking unrelated events; and the almost superstitious faith that we have vast, untapped abilities.
“We tend to think our intuitions are fantastic, but they’re drastically off in some cases—and that has consequences,” said Chabris, who is also an adjunct assistant professor of neurology at Albany Medical Center and a visiting scholar at the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence.
One example in the book illustrates how people can be swayed by expressions of confidence. It involves the 1985 rape conviction of a North Carolina man, Ronald Cotton. The victim had gone to great lengths to memorize what her attacker looked like, and picked Cotton out of a police lineup. At trial, she was a supremely confident witness, expressing “no doubt” that he was her attacker. Based largely on her testimony, a jury convicted Cotton after only four hours of deliberation. Ten years later, DNA evidence exonerated Cotton; another man had committed the rape.
“The Invisible Gorilla” also challenges other popular books that give the impression that our gut instincts and intuitions are profoundly reliable. But in many cases one’s intuitions are actually the result of years of study or experience in a given field, Chabris said.
“If I ask a chess grandmaster to glance at a board and give me a gut reaction, it’s going to be good,” he said. “But it’s not because the grandmaster’s raw intuition is good. It’s because of years of dedicated practice and study that have automated complex judgments.”
Chabris and Simons, who in 2004 were awarded the Ig Nobel Prize in Psychology for “achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think,” will soon embark on a nationwide book tour.
Chabris hopes the book will offer solace to those who doubt the exaggerated claims of much of the self-help movement.
“There are no simple ways to overcome the limitations on our own minds,” he says, “but we can make better decisions by learning to keep an eye out for invisible gorillas in our own thoughts and in the world around us.”
To learn more about the book, click here.