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New book: Everyday intuitions are often wrong

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"The Invisible Gorilla, And Other Ways our Intuitions Deceive Us" points out many common blind spots.

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5/18/2010 | Diana Yates, Life Sciences Editor | 217-333-5802; diya@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, lll. — Are you a good judge of character? Are you observant? Perceptive? Knowledgeable? Do you have an excellent memory? Are you an accomplished multi-tasker?

Daniel Simon
Psychology professor Daniel Simons is co-author of "The Invisible Gorilla, And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us," a book that challenges common illusions of perception and belief. Simons and his co-author Christopher Chabris of Union College, New York, are best known for their work revealing the limits of attention and awareness. | Photo courtesy Dan Simons

According to a new book, in these and other skills you’re almost certainly not as good as you think you are.

“The Invisible Gorilla, And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us” is not a book for the committed egotist. But it might offer solace to those who doubt the exaggerated claims of much of the self-help movement.

Unlike many books on psychological science, “The Invisible Gorilla” seeks to burst, rather than inflate, a lot of self-aggrandizing bubbles. Its authors, Christopher Chabris, a Harvard-educated psychology professor now at Union College in New York, and Daniel Simons, a Cornell-educated 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.

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.”

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 and Chabris was a graduate student there.

This now-famous experiment 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. About 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 failed to see the gorilla at all.

This is an example of “inattentional blindness,” the failure to see something obvious because one’s cognitive 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.

Perhaps more striking than the failure to spot the obvious, Simons said, is the deep-rooted belief held by most people that they would notice something as out of place as a gorilla at basketball practice. In a survey commissioned by the authors and discussed in the book, more than 75 percent of a representative sample of American adults “agreed that they would notice such unexpected events, even when they are focused on something else.”

The lack of awareness of what one misses only reinforces the illusion of one’s attentional prowess. “You don’t notice all the things that you didn’t notice,” Simons said. “So it’s kind of a self-delusion, but without knowing that you’re doing anything to delude yourself. Such delusions can lead people to do dangerous things with a false sense of security, such as talk or text on a cell phone while driving.”

Inattentional blindness is only one of the invisible gorillas the authors tackle. 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.

“The focus of our book is on the ways in which our intuitions about the mind are fundamentally wrong a lot of the time,” Simons said. “We tend to think our intuitions are fantastic, and they’re terrible. And that has consequences.”

The book uses numerous real-world stories as examples, backed up with annotated, peer-reviewed research findings from a variety of sources.

One story illustrates how people can be swayed by expressions of confidence. It involves the 1985 conviction of a North Carolina man, Ronald Cotton, of rape. 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.

There are other examples of how the “illusion of confidence” leads people astray, from those swindled by “confidence men” to those who disproportionately value their own skills. One fascinating study conducted by the authors found that those with the least expertise in a field – in this case, competitive chess – were the most likely to overestimate their abilities.

“The Invisible Gorilla” also challenges other popular books that give the impression that our gut instincts and intuitions are profoundly reliable.

“It is true that you can make amazing perceptual judgments about really complex things really quickly,” Simons said. “You can judge personality really quickly just by seeing someone’s dorm room or office, for example.” But in many cases one’s seemingly instantaneous “intuitions” are actually the result of years of study, of expertise in a given field, he said.

“If I take a grandmaster chess player and have them glance at a board and give me their gut reaction, it’s going to be good,” Simons said. “But it’s not because their raw intuition is good. It’s because their pattern recognition has been practiced so that complex judgments have been automated.”

The original paper on the gorilla study was playfully titled “Gorillas in Our Midst.” At the end of their book the authors urge readers to keep an eye out for these “invisible” gorillas: the illusions that cause people to overestimate their abilities, with sometimes tragic consequences.

Simons is also an affiliate of the Beckman Institute at Illinois.

Editor's note: To contact Daniel Simons call 217-333-7628; e-mail: dsimons@illinois.edu. “The Invisible Gorilla” is available for purchase on May 18.
Dainel Simon
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