Book review of The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us

Imagine you are asked to watch a short video (above or here) in which six people – three in white shirts and three in black shirts-pass basketballs around. While you watch, you must keep a silent count of the number of passes made by the people in white shirts.

Can you do that? Probably…

But what if at some point, a gorilla strolls into the middle of the action, faces the camera, thumps its chest, and then leaves, spending nine seconds on screen. Would you see the gorilla?

Almost everyone has the intuition that the answer is “yes, of course I would.” How could something so obvious go completely unnoticed?

The fact is that when this experiment was done at Harvard University several years ago, half of the people who watched the video and counted the passes missed the gorilla. It was as though the gorilla was invisible.

I actually did the gorilla experiment myself a few years ago. A friend showed me the video and told me to count the passes. Of course, he did not tell me about the gorilla. I actually ended up seeing the Gorilla. I was surprised to see people after me try it and miss it. I remembered the experiment and if somebody asked – “Hey, did you see the one with the gorilla”, I would say yes. I did not think to heavily on the ramifications of this experiment.

That is until I read The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons (Where I also found out that the reason I saw it is probably due to the fact that I been playing and watching basketball for years. People with that kind of experience are much more likely to see the gorilla).

In the book, the authors, take not only the gorilla experiment which is academically termed “inattentional blindness” or “illusion of attention” but 5 other “everyday illusions” (The illusion of memory, The illusion of confidence, Illusion of knowledge, illusion of cause and The illusion of potential) and skillfully explain them in both scientific and everyday examples. It is another very scary but equally fascinating journey into the fallibility of the human mind and human nature’s inability to admit that fallibility.

While the entire book was insightful, the first chapter, describing the first Gorilla Experiment (and its replications) as well as some of its real world implications was the chapter if found o be most compelling and novel. The recurring lesson for me was that our most basic beliefs and instincts can widely deceive us. As the authors put it:

We think we should see anything in front of us, but in fact we are aware of only a small portion of our visual world at any moment. The idea that we can look but not see is flatly incompatible with how we understand our own minds, and this mistaken understanding can lead to incautious or overconfident decisions.

As someone interested in human relationship and how professional conversations (like a feedback session) I find this to be especially important. Observing people give feedback for years I always wondered – How can they miss the clear signs the person in front of them is giving? Why do they continue to say what they planed when it is obvious the person is not responding?

While this has to do with listening skills and assumptions, one thing I realized while reading the book is that it has do with expectations. Or more academically phrased:

Your moment-to-moment expectations, more than the visual distinctiveness of the object, determine what you see—and what you miss

If people can miss a gorilla, standing right in front of their eyes because there are not expecting it, why shouldn’t they miss more subtle auditory and behavioral cues? The issue is coming to such a conversation with expectations that define what you will see and hear.

When you connect that to the Illusion of knowledge – the fact that people mistake knowledge of what happens for an understanding of why it happens, and then mistake feelings of familiarity for genuine knowledge – you understand that the assumptions and pre-held conceptions people enter a conversation with can actually make then blind (or deaf) to the person sitting in front of them.

This does not change what I thought about situations of feedback and how to handle them it just reinforces the prescriptions and the habits for good communication. It does, however, help me understand a little bit more about the process that goes inside people’s brains and the reasons to some of their behaviors.

I recommend you read the book as I do believe that many of the illusions described in it (although not all of them) can be at least dealt with to a certain extent by being more aware of the shaky foundations of some of our beliefs. While reading the book is not enough (there should be a process of turning the information into knowledge and then into wisdom, I think it is a great starting point.


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