The Invisible Gorilla

Daniel Simons & Christopher Chabris Also available in audiobook: Download our app for free listening.

How many times have you heard people saying –“Trust your gut”? What about “Go with the first answer that pops into your head” or that old classic “If your heart tells you it’s her – then she must be the one!” Too many to count, right?

In “The Invisible Gorilla,” American experimental psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons ask a simple but far-reaching question: what if they – your parents, your teachers, your friends – were wrong? What if it is correct to generally not judge the book by its cover? What if, at least every now and then, following your gut feeling is the worst thing you can do?

Interested? If so, get ready to explore the inner workings of your mind and all the tricks it plays on you daily – and prepare to learn in which situations, following your intuition is a bad choice!

The myth of intuition

Intuition – more colloquially, gut instinct – is defined by most encyclopedias as the ability of humans to “acquire knowledge without recourse to conscious reasoning.” In layman’s terms, we can rephrase that as your ability to immediately understand or grasp the essence of something – such as, say, the meaning of the word “intuition.” There was no need for us to define or describe it, or for you to think over your comprehension of the concept. Most people just know what intuition is the minute they hear that word; thinking about it only complicates things. It’s just like Saint Augustine wrote thousands of years ago: “I know what time is – until someone asks me to explain it to him.”

Just as well, we sometimes know what to do or say intuitively – it’s only when we subject our gut feeling to a more rigorous analysis that we end up making mistakes. It’s almost as if we were capable of thinking better when not thinking. One of the intellectual gurus of the modern age, Malcolm Gladwell, dubbed this “the power of thinking without thinking” in the subtitle of his bestselling second book “Blink,” where he tried to demonstrate that intuition is habitually better than extensive analysis since it is preprogrammed to tune out extraneous information and focus only on the relevant data.

However, in “The Invisible Gorilla,” Chabris and Simons argue that Gladwell, though not entirely wrong, failed to see the big picture, and that, in reality, there are just as many situations proving that the opposite might be at least as accurate. Take the case of bibliophile Thomas James Wise, collector of the famous Ashley Library. Due to his unquestioned standing as a noted bibliographer and bookworm, he was able to plant and authenticate numerous forged books and documents. Intuitively, these seemed genuine to numerous buyers. His literary forgeries were exposed only after two young experts, John Carter and Graham Pollard, meticulously analyzed the counterfeited books and published their results in a 400-page study. 

The unearthing of Wise’s crimes is just one example of “deliberate, scientific analysis overcoming flawed, intuitive judgments.” There’s more in “The Invisible Gorilla,” which is a book about “six everyday illusions that profoundly influence our lives,” a study of “six distorted beliefs we hold about our minds that are not just wrong, but wrong in dangerous ways,” according to the authors. Let’s have a look at them all.

The illusion of attention: “I think I would have seen that”

In 1995, Boston police officer Kenny Conley was chasing a shooting suspect when an African American undercover officer was mistakenly taken down and beaten up by other policemen right in front of his very eyes. Conley was tried and later convicted of obstruction of justice and perjury because the jury didn’t buy his story that he hadn’t noticed the beating up of his colleague.

Truth be told, Conley’s story was not exactly a believable one. Well, not until six years later and “one of the most famous psychological demos” in history: the Invisible Gorilla test, conducted by none other than the authors of this book. The test went like this: Simons and Chabris invited subjects to watch a video of two groups of people (wearing white and black T-shirts) passing a ball around and asked them to count the passes made by only one of the teams. In the middle of the video, a person wearing a full gorilla suit would suddenly appear and slowly walk over from one side of the court to the other. Fascinatingly, 1 out of 2 subjects reported not seeing it.

Why? Because we’re not programmed to. When we focus on one thing – like counting the number of times that players in white T-shirts pass the ball between them – our mind isn’t interested in anything other than that and might ignore even giant slow-moving gorilla-suited man in the middle of the screen. And probably that’s what happened in the case of officer Conley: while too focused on catching the criminal, he may have missed the beating up of his colleague happening near him.

The illusion of attention is all about anticipations and expectations. And it is a very dangerous illusion: half of all motorcycle accidents involve collisions with cars, and two-thirds of them are the direct result of a car turning left and not noticing the motorcycle. Why? Because the driver is expecting – and is wary of – another car – exclusively.

The illusion of memory: “I remember perfectly”

“Our memory has no guarantees at all” – wrote Sigmund Freud in “The Interpretation of Dreams” – “and yet we bow more often than is objectively justified to the compulsion to believe what it says.” Freud pinpoints the dangerous “Memory Catch-22” quite perfectly: in addition to coercing us into believing the accuracy of our memories, our brain has simultaneously evolved to remodel them from time to time.

Take a few seconds to memorize the 15 words on this list: bed, rest, awake, tired, dream, wake, snooze, blanket, doze, slumber, snore, nap, peace, yawn, drowsy. Now, cover your screen and test yourself how well you’ve done by jotting down your answers. If you are like 40% of the people, you probably didn’t skip the word sleep. But, look again: that word is not on our list!

True, all of the words are related to it, but your brain fabricated the memory of it being present as well, because, by nature, it doesn’t record events, but tries to reconstruct them. The difference between the two boils down to this simple fact of life: even if you remember something vividly, there’s no way you could know for sure if your memory is correct unless there’s some video or photographic evidence of the event.

The illusion of confidence: “I’m better than the score shows”

An interesting statistic: more than two-thirds of Americans think they are more intelligent than your average Joe. The problem? Your average Joe, by definition, should be smarter than half of the population – neither more nor less. So, about 20% of Americans confidently deceive themselves that they know more than they actually know.

Since scientists often question the reliability of IQ tests, Chabris and Simons tried to test out this “illusion of confidence” among the chess community, where the numbers are much more precise. Strangely enough, the results ended up being pretty much the same: 75% of the interviewed chess players thought that they were underrated by an average of 99 points, even though in chess it is rather difficult to beat regularly an opponent rated 100 points above you. And yet, it seems that 4 out 5 chess players are confident enough that that they can. Ironically, if all of them are just gifted the 100 points they believe they deserve, the only thing that would change is the standard: their relative position to other players would basically remain the same.

To make matters worse, as Charles Darwin astutely observed in “The Descent of Man,” “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” Experimental studies have proven Darwin right. In essence, the less skilled you are, the less knowledge you have of your unskillfulness; hence, the unwarranted confidence. Dubbed the Dunning-Kruger effect after the social psychologists who first described it, this cognitive bias is also known as the illusion of superiority – and can be safely categorized as a subtype of the illusion of confidence.

The illusion of knowledge: “I know more than I do”

It doesn’t matter whether you’re an expert in your field or not; in many cases, your guesses for the future are just as good as those of the most uneducated person alive. The reason: we can’t predict the future and no matter how much we know about our present, there’s always the chance (nay, the inevitability) of a highly improbable – and, yet, highly impactful – Talebian black-swan event.

For example, Herbert Simon and Allen Newell predicted, in 1957, that computers would beat human opponents within a decade. Both would eventually win the 1975 A.M. Turing Award, and Simon would win a Nobel Prize in Economics three years later. When the decade expired, a computer programmer and an avid chess player David Levy, bet four other computer scientists the very opposite: that no computer would ever be able to beat a human chess player.  All of them were wrong: a computer nicknamed Deep Blue eventually beat the highest-rated human chess player Garry Kasparov – but in 1997, and not in 1967!

Socrates believed that he knew nothing – and it was because of this that he was dubbed the smartest man of his day and age by the gods. He might have been on to something.

The illusion of cause: “I’m not superstitious… Just a little ‘stitious’”

Like it or hate it, “our minds are built to detect meaning in patterns, to infer causal relationships from coincidences, and to believe that earlier events cause later ones.” On the face of it, there’s nothing wrong with this: after all, a doctor guesses your disease based on a pattern of symptoms, and a sports coach establishes their tactics after carefully deducing the behavioral patterns of the other team.

However, dig a little deeper, and you’ll see the big problem: it is because of this pattern-detecting behavior of our brain that we sometimes fail to realize how random the world actually is. Obviously, there’s no man or rabbit on the moon – these are just some randomly scattered moon lakes. Additionally, the place where you’re sitting bears no causal relation whatsoever to how your favorite team is performing. Finally, you can’t really hear “Here’s to my sweet Satan” when you play Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” backward – that is, unless you prepare yourself to hear precisely that beforehand.

And therein lies the rub: if we can only observe the patterns that our brain has been previously prepared to observe, then we’re built to be pretty susceptible to brainwashing and inherently constrained to a worldview created by prejudices and superstitions of our own. Even the facts and the stats are sometimes powerless against the seemingly commonsensical illusion of cause.

The illusion of potential: “I could have been someone….”

The illusion of potential, write Chabris and Simons, “leads us to think that vast reservoirs of untapped mental ability exist in our brains, just waiting to be accessed – if only we knew how.” And it essentially combines two beliefs.

First and foremost, that “beneath the surface, the human mind and brain harbor the potential to perform at much higher levels, in a wide range of situations and contexts, than they typically do;” and secondly, that “this potential can be released with simple techniques that are easily and rapidly implemented.”

You know what we’re talking about: even though it is illogical and scientifically wrong, most people still believe that they use only 10% of their brain! And, thanks to many bad to average movies and countless self-help books and false studies, they probably also believe that  some things can easily – and promptly – awaken the rest of their brain.

For example, 40% of people believe in the Mozart effect, i.e., the idea that listening to Mozart’s music should make them smarter. The reason is not only because there’s a multimillion-dollar industry that wants them to believe, but also because everyone wants a shortcut. In truth, there are no tricks. It takes a lot of effort, numerous mistakes, and many years to develop your genius. And it’s only worth it if you make it.

Final Notes

There’s a lot to like in “The Invisible Gorilla” and almost nothing to be critical about. As The New York Times’ Paul Bloom wrote, the book is not only sobering and thought-provoking but also “engaging and humane” – and it might just teach you to be “more humble, understanding and forgiving.”

12min Tip

Question all of your intuitive beliefs: most of them are unconscious, outdated – and not really yours to begin with.

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