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.


Inside and outside view

Photo by dlco4

Following the last two posts about Stumbling on Happiness by Dan Gilbert (here and here) I wanted to highlight a few more interesting quotes from the book. One of the basic challenges that people encounter in any relationship, and especially when approaching a difficult conversation or feedback, is that they assume things about what the other person is thinking or feeling. As the authors of Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss what Matters Most explain, people confuse intentions with actions. We can see the action a person did (or hear what he said). We can only assume his or her intentions. In the book, Gilbert gives us a glimpse to why that happens:

We are the only people in the world whom we can know from the inside. We experience our own thoughts and feelings but must infer that other people are experiencing theirs. We all trust that behind those eyes and inside those skulls, our friends and neighbors are having subjective experiences very much like our own, but that trust is an article of faith and not the palpable, self-evident truth that our own subjective experiences constitute.

In other words, we have an inside view of our own emotions and thoughts, but an outside view of other people’s emotions and thoughts. Or as Gilbert puts it:

There is a difference between making love and reading about it, and it is the same difference that distinguishes our knowledge of our own mental lives from our knowledge of everyone else’s.

The problem, as the book skillfully explains, is that whenever our mind encounters ambiguity it tends to fill in the details without telling us about it. We assume things about the other person. Automatically. Without being aware that we are doing it.

This is something we need to remember. We are on the outside. To get a glance on the inside, we need to engage the other person. To listen with him or her. To ask questions. Because when it comes to the human mind, the only way to get a tiny window into the inside view is if the other person communicates it to us. And this process requires trust.

So, how do you make sure you get a glance of a person’s inside view and not only the outside view?


Thoughts about perceptions, imagination and communication inspired by Stumbling on happiness

Photo by krossbow

A few days ago I wrote about Stumbling on Happiness by Dan Gilbert and how revealing it is with regards to the fallibility of the human mind. One side effect of Gilbert’s delving into happiness is a long discussion about how we perceive others and the “filling in” processes that we automatically do whenever we imagine a situation. In other words, people perceptions are not equal reality. Or as Gilberts puts it:

Perceptions are portraits, not photographs, and their form reveals the artist’s hand every bit as much as it reflects the things portrayed.

The problem is that people actions are based on these imperfect perceptions of reality and not on reality itself. Or in other words:

Objective stimuli in the world create subjective stimuli in the mind, and it is these subjective stimuli to which people react.

This, as Gilbert explains, is a result of the fact that we are usually unaware that our brain is actively changing our perceptions, replacing missing pieces with assumptions and deductions. In other words, when we encounter a situation, there is a lot we don’t know about it. And instead of realizing that, our brains just make up for what we don’t know. This is a mistake, as Gilbert skillfully explains:

Your mistake was not in imagining things you could not know—that is, after all, what imagination is for. Rather, your mistake was in unthinkingly treating what you imagined as though it were an accurate representation of the facts.

As Gilbert stresses in his book, awareness in not a good enough cure for this mistake, as people make it even when they are aware that they are going to make it. Although I guess it is a good starting point. When awareness can’t do, we have to move to habits and processes that alow us to overcome our mind’s fallibility. As I also wrote a few days ago, one possible solution to this issue might be found in active listening, where you listen WITH the other person. This means you ignore your own thoughts and concentrate fully on understanding the point of view of the person you are communicating with in order to reduce the possibility of your brain needing to fill in blanks.


Listening WITH or Listening FOR

Have you ever felt someone was talking to you not with you? I was trying to sell my apartment a few weeks ago so I had many meetings with real estate agents. I remember sitting in some of these appointments and after a few minutes thinking to myself – “this guy is not talking with me – he is talking to me”. The guy went on and on about how great his agency is, about their system and its benefits etc. he did not start by asking me what I need. He did not notice that I understood the point he was making after the first minute and kept boring me for ten more minutes. He was so in his own world that there was no way I was going to connect with him on any level – personal or professional. In a profession that is built on trust, his lack of attention to me truly amazed me.

The whole situation reminded me of how Edgar Schien defined one of the main problems with helping in his book Helping: How to Offer, Give, and Receive Help (I wrote about this wonderful paragraph in the past):

The trap for the helper is to move too rapidly to solutions, to provide advice or guidance on the hypothetical problem and, thereby, cut off the opportunity to learn what the real problem might be. Working the hypothetical problem does little to equilibrate the relationship.

Then I was watching the above TED talk by Julian Treasure and heard this:

Ears are made not for hearing, but for listening. Listening is an active skill. Whereas hearing is passive, listening is something that we have to work at. It’s a relationship with sound. And yet it’s a skill that none of us are taught. For example, have you ever considered that there are listening positions, places you can listen from? Here are two of them. Reductive listening is listening “for.” It reduces everything down to what’s relevant, and it discards everything that’s not relevant. Men typically listen reductively. So he’s saying, “I’ve got this problem.” He’s saying, “Here’s your solution. Thanks very much. Next.” That’s the way we talk, right guys? Expansive listening, on the other hand, is listening “with,” not listening “for.” It’s got no destination in mind. It’s just enjoying the journey. Women typically listen expansively. If you look at these two, eye contact, facing each other, possibly both talking at the same time. Men, if you get nothing else out of this talk, practice expansive listening, and you can transform your relationships.

I love the idea that “Listening is an active skill”. It reminds us that it doesn’t just happen. It requires work. It requires as to be present and attentive. It is a skill one can develop.

I think it goes both ways. In professions that are based on relationships, and management is all about relationships, I think developing the ability to talk with and listen with is crucial

So my question is – are you talking to or with someone? Are you listening with or for?


Restraint and focus

Photo by sparklefish

On Paul Nunes and Tim Breene write about “going slow in order to win fast”:

In today’s hyper-kinetic business world, most advice seems to be focused on how companies can speed things up. Cut that process step! Shorten that product development cycle! There’s tremendous pressure to get products out fast, in start-ups and large corporations alike. But some business leaders appear to be going in the other direction. The Wall Street Journal recently posited that the secret to Apple’s success lies in its “foot-dragging” — its history of resisting introducing products like the iPod until they can expertly fulfill consumers’ desires. Indeed, Apple has consistently prioritized user experience over the latest in whiz-bang technology. Its products are rarely the newest, but they are always the best at giving consumers what they really want.  Apple grasps something that too few others do: Restraint is a key element of true business success.

Important point.  Restraint is a key element not only in strategy and marketing but also in self-management and in managing other people.

We often equate activity with effectiveness. If we keep moving, if we do many things, if we squeeze the most into one day it means that we are doing our job well. I guess sometimes this is true. However, there is also power to be found in stillness, focus and undivided attention.

Have you ever sat down with a manager or peer to talk and you had the feeling he is not really with you? Was he glancing at his computer screen (or phone), answering questions you did not really ask, and taking the conversation in directions that were not really relevant but just seemed to pop into his mind? In other words, did you feel he was just not with you?

Now, think about the last time you did this to somebody else.

Our thinking and language are so entwined with things like multitasking and span of control that we neglect to appreciate the power of full attention and tend to forget to put the quality over quantity of an activity.

So, how are you practicing restraint? How are you focusing you attention? Are you in a frenzy of activity or are you putting all you have into the things that matter?


Thoughts about “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm #Gladwell

Photo by Wikipedia

I just finished reading (well, listening, as I bought it on to Malcolm Glaswell’s The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference . As an avid reader of Gladwell’s books it is somewhat surprising that I read this book last as it was his first New York Times best seller. However, it might have been for the best. While the book is a typical Gladwell book, i.e. wonderfully written and delivering some very important ideas to think about, I think it does not reach the level of his other books, especially Outliers which is just mind-blowing!

However, I think three ideas did strike me as very powerful. Two of them from the actual book and one from the afterword.

The power of small things – the book deals generally with how things tip and one of the most important rules is “The Law of the Few” (“The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts”). The book is filled with examples of how small things (small number of people, small number of behaviors, small number of incidents) can have and enormous effect on a nationwide level. The importance of small things is an idea I think about a lot and written about a few times, mentioning, like Gladwell does, the Broken Windows theory and other similar ideas. As I was reading the book, I thought about how counterintuitive it is that small things have so much influence. How people expect that big issues will have big causes or explanations. I think that this tendency is something every manager and leader has to fight against every day. If as a manager you succeed in locating and focusing on the “right” little things and convince the people around you to passionately fret about the same things, you are on the right way. As a society we need to devote more time to small issues and not only to big ones.

Environments – another rule is the importance of context or of the environment (“Epidemics are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which they occur”). This is something I have seen with my eyes many times but have never been able to appropriately name until the last few years. How organizations, teams or just groups of people, are highly contagious in their behavior. How a change of one person or an attitude can make similar situations develop totally differently. I saw this many times a commander in the Air Force. We had courses with more or less similar populations that developed in very different ways. The first few days, where internal norms were created were really important to the way the course developed. And it was not only in terms of the performance. More importantly it affected satisfaction, creativity and moral as well. The two ideas together – of context and small things making a big difference are powerful ideas.

Immunity – in the afterword, Gladwell writes about the idea of immunity. It is another way to think about change in general. If in the past telemarketing or mass media advertising worked and companies build entire business models on them, today they don’t work as well. People developed immunity. Some say that some of the fads we see in the managerial world – every time a new theory comes and holds for a few years and then replaced by a the new fad – might be a manifestation of the same idea. We develop immunity.

The manager before you never used to even say think you. When you come in a start doing that, it creates amazing change. However, after a while, it becomes routine. It is still important, but it does not carry the same punch it did when you first started. It is time to adapt.

So for me another way to look at the idea of immunity is to say we need to keep developing and changing. That no idea, theory, or belief can hold forever. And when I think about it I automatically think of things I wrote about in the past like capitalism, democracy, equality, the public company, factory mentality and more concepts that are not evolving fast enough. If people are adaptive and develop immunity, we need to keep thinking and inventing new ways. It doesn’t matter if it is politicians, parents, managers, academics or any other professional. Change, adapt, do the unexpected.


The atmosphere of #feedback

Photo by NASA

I got to teach a few classes about feedback and have always been fascinated with the subject and its personal as well as organizational consequences. I rarely encounter anything that truly makes me rethink my understanding of the concept. A few posts in the last few days have made do just that.

First, Bret L. Simmons, one of the best writers on organizational issues I have been following lately discussed the importance of trust in the feedback interchange because of the interpersonal risk involved:

I always seek feedback from the person that invited me to speak, but other than that, if Gary, Kathy, or another trusted friend did not attend my talk, I don’t ask anyone else what they thought about my presentation. It’s risky to tell people the truth about their performance; therefore, I won’t ask anyone that does not know me well enough to trust me to take that risk.

Next, Auren Hoffman from Summation blog wrote about how people are too afraid of rejection.

I would guess that people who take rejection well make much better employees.  They can take the appropriate level of risk and still feel good about themselves.  When interviewing, test this trait.

Finally, Peter Bregman writes about the pointlessness of arguing:

And that’s when it hit me: arguing was a waste of my time.

Not just in that situation with that police officer. I’m talking about arguing with anyone, anywhere, any time. It’s a guaranteed losing move.

Think about it. You and someone have an opposing view and you argue. You pretend to listen to what she’s saying but what you’re really doing is thinking about the weakness in her argument so you can disprove it. Or perhaps, if she’s debunked a previous point, you’re thinking of new counter-arguments. Or, maybe, you’ve made it personal: it’s not just her argument that’s the problem. It’s her. And everyone who agrees with her.

When I teach feedback workshops I always talk about the importance of creating a shared purpose and atmosphere of trust in the beginning of the interaction (and sometimes, when things go astray, in the middle). After I read these posts and thought about it I realized I was not sure I have ever really stressed the importance of this point enough. Because I am not sure I really understood it to this level.

All of these wonderful thinkers point out to this exact issue. How hard it is to actually be in a state of learning and acceptance to other people. How important it is to create an atmosphere of trust between two people before you actually try to engage in the shared learning that is feedback.

And I ask you this – how are you going to make sure next time you are giving feedback that the two of you are actually in a place that will enable you to productively engage in mutual understanding and growth?