on April 12, 2010
The Invisible Gorilla is an unusual name for an unusual book. The authors Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons have assembled a evidence of six illusions that impact our lives in significant ways. Chapter One deals with the illusion of attention, that is, the illusion that we see or observe far more than we think. Several experiments have proven that even obvious things are easily missed by people. Up to fifty percent of testers failed to see a fake gorilla enter a basketball game where the testers were counting the number of ball passes rather than looking for gorillas. It is from this experiment that the book gets its name.
Most think that such a gorilla would be easily noticed; however, various experiments have shown this is not the case. This lack of ability to see objects that are not expected may explain why cars pull out in front of motorcycles, as it is theorized that people driving cars do not expect to see motorcycles and thus they do not. Cell phone users also miss obvious objects while they are driving. It seems cell phone users that are driving suffer from a reduction in awareness, but they are not aware of it. Thus the illusion that they are as fully aware while talking on the phone as they are when the phone is not in use. The Invisible Gorilla points out how this attention illusion can have real and sometimes harsh results in the real world.
Then the book goes on to describe five other illusions: the illusion of memory, the illusion of knowledge and confidence, the illusion that in a series of events, event one causes event two, and the illusion that certain mythical processes - such as hypnotism - can help one reach their full potential. Another illusion is we can do many things well all at once (multi-tasking); however, experiments have shown this is a false assumption.
The book's key message is that we think our mental abilities and capacities are greater than they really are. Perhaps the largest impact is in court, where witnesses think they can accurately remember an event that occurred some time ago.
I loved this book. It explains so many problems faced in a modern world where information as well as objects are hurled into our lives at breathtaking speed. What is most important is that we stop assuming our minds can process all this whirl without problems. More experiments are necessary to evaluate how our minds work. Understanding our limitations is important to achieving our full potential.
Lately, there has been a plethora of books trying to popularize the more interesting and counter-intuitive results from fields like behavioral psychology. All of those books, as far as I'm aware, mention a particularly famous study where participants are asked to view a video of basketball players and asked to count the number of passes. As odd as it sounds, about half of the participants fail to notice the "invisible gorilla" - a man dressed like a gorilla strolling from one side of the court to the other.
These two authors are the inventors of that and subsequent experiments. In other words, these authors are very knowledgeable about their field because, in a sense, they invented one of its primary experiments.
What is their focus in this book? Well, it is not so much that people didn't notice the "invisible gorilla" that surprised them, but the adamance with which participants denied that they could have missed something so obvious. Many disbelieved that there was actually a gorilla in the tape they were shown, accusing he researchers of playing a trick on them. So, the authors' mission in this book is to explore the human tendency toward overconfidence in their abilities.
Each chapter focuses on a different "illusion" that comes from the human tendency to (very subconsciously) overestimate our ability. They are as follows:
Chapter 1 - Illusion of Attention, or, the belief that we are attentive to much more than we actually are at any given moment.
Chapter 2 - Illusion of Memory, or, the illusion that our memories are much more exact than they are.
Chapter 3 - Illusion of Confidence, or, the illusion that confidence (in others) is a good sign of competence.
Chapter 4 - Illusion of Knowledge, or, the illusion that we have detailed knowledge about many things that, in fact, we only have vague knowledge of.
Chapter 5 - Illusion of Cause, or, the illusion that two things happening sequentially necessarily signifies scause/effect relationship.
Chapter 6 - Illusion of Potential, or, the illusion that in every human, there is a vast array of untapped potential waiting to come out (if only we learn to use more of our brains, listen to Mozart, "train our brains" etc.)
The thing is that while this book is a very interesting and well-written one for casual reading, each of these illusions has very potentially serious consequences. While the authors present studies and anecdotes in each chapter that illustrate each phenomenon, the message is very serious: if we are not careful to be somewhat aware of our tendency to overestimate our abilities, we could send the wrong person to prison (if we are a witness), spend too much time and money on the wrong things for our child's cognitive development (if we are a parent), or even cause an accident (if we are a texter-while-driving).
For instance, the authors spend a great deal of time in chapter 1 debunking the myth that is multitasking. In reality, study after study show that we can only multi task when (a) all but one of the things we are doing is completely routine, or (b) alternate our attention rapidly, but often ineffectively, between all the things we are doing. It is literally impossible to do two non-routine things well at the same time. And this leads to people thinking that they can text or talk on their cell while driving, when studies show that this leads to the exact same type of delayed reactions exhibited by drunk drivers. Once we text or talk, we can only drive well when nothing unexpected happens. Should a car dart in front of us, our reaction time will be about the same as the drunk driver.
Another example? Chapter 5 spends much time examining the disjunct between how scientific studies work to establish causal connections, and how the human brain does it. The latter often falls victim to seeing causal relationships in events that are simply sequential or correlational. Particularly, the media often tends to report a causal link between x and y when the scientific study only said that factors x and y were correlated (and the cause may be z or something more complex). We also tend, in our personal lives, to give more credence to anecdotes than statistics. Put these together, and it leads to a lot of wasted money and time chasing false leads (like trying to undo autism by not getting children vaccinated, or buying Baby Mozart CD's based on very flawed reports).
All in all, this book is not only interesting and entertaining to read, but has some very serious lessons to teach. One would think a book telling us that we are not often all that we think we are might imbue pessimism into its readers. This book really does the opposite: it shows us that by knowing where we are most likely to make mistakes in estimating our abilities, we actually INCREASE our competence (or, am I just succumbing to the illusion of confidence?).
No matter how carefully you think about what you're doing, no matter how realistic your view of the world seems to be, you're apparently fooling yourself. According to psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, our brains are hardwired to edit our perceptions and memories, to misinterpret evidence and jump to conclusions. They outline a variety of illusions the human mind falls prey to, some of which make intuitive (uh-oh - the goal of the book is to prove the unreliability of intuition) sense, including the fact that our brains edit information coming from our senses (we can all understand that if we noticed everything happening around us we could pay attention to none of it) and overconfidence (surprise! People who don't know very much about a subject overestimate how much they understand - I have some colleagues I'd like to hand that chapter to). Others were more startling - that in general people tend to believe the first "evidence" of a fact they receive, especially when it's presented emotionally, and they resist later evidence to the contrary, no matter how convincing (so it's not just those idiots from the other end of the political spectrum who do that!).
The Invisible Gorilla presents a lot of illuminating information that is well worth reading - it's both interesting and enlightening. I guess popular psychology books are expected to propose a solution to the problems they outline, so the final chapter offers somewhat less compelling suggestions for avoiding your brain's false intuitions. While on the one hand I was glad to discover that I'm a normal human, not an inattentive dummy (which is what I feel like when I'm driving, and I don't even own a cell phone!), on the other I was sorry to learn that there's not a whole lot of hope for change, barring a life of hyper-vigilance.
on April 9, 2010
I found The Invisible Gorilla to be a fascinating read. It's not only fun to learn about how and why our brains do certain things, but it's even better when you realize that you too could have been an example in many situations. You will learn how and why our memory can not always be fully trusted, as well as how almost everyone takes certain facts and makes many assumptions based upon correlations. The Invisible Gorilla is a real eye opener in many ways, from the laughable way we trust our own memories, to the unfortunate imprisonment of innocent people that are victims of the way our memory works. I can only imagine how many people are serving time or have been executed based primarily upon eye witness accounts. What you will learn in this book is that it is not really the victim or witness' fault, but the way our brain operates. I was really happy to see that the authors touched upon the cellphone while driving issue and gave the reason why even hands free driving is extremely dangerous. I hope that more people will realize the danger and quit using their phones while driving...period!
The Invisible Gorilla is an entertaining book that will teach you many things about yourself and how your mind works. You will start thinking about all the things you honestly "knew" you knew!
The authors designed a clever experiment wherein test subjects were asked to keep count of the number of passes in a video of a basketball game. Because they were so focused on the assigned task, a surprising number of test subjects failed to notice a person in a gorilla suit in plain view. From this experiment and a handful of others, the authors have decided to declare war on intuition. They have a particular aversion to CEO profiles that laud the subject's "gut" decision-making and to journalists who draw invalid conclusions from scientific studies, for example, that immunizations cause autism.
The illusions that they illustrate do seem to be common human failings:
o We overestimate our ability to multi-task
o We overestimate the accuracy of our memories
o We mistake confidence for capability
o We confuse causation with correlation
One particular peril that the authors justly explicate is the faultiness of eyewitness identification. No one who reads this book is likely to trust an eyewitness in a court of law.
The book, however, feels padded. The descriptions of the clever experiments are worthwhile, as are the critiques of faulty studies. But the authors expend a lot of verbiage on speculation, trying to squeeze whole chapters out of information that could be conveyed in two pages. They also seem to be rather confident that the next study won't contradict what the last one seemed to prove.
I also don't understand why they take a few illusions that humans fall prey to and declare that intuition is the culprit. We also are vulnerable to optical illusions, but we don't walk around with eyes shut.
This is, in the final analysis, a pop psychology book. What separates it from the rest of the crowd is that it is based on actual research, is presented at above a grade three reading level and is, y'know, true. Or as true as well-research psychology can get.
It's also fascinating. The authors pair up to take on some of the deepest and, in some ways, darkest truths of human nature in perception. The short is, you aren't as smart as you think you are, you aren't as clever as you think you are and you aren't as observant as you think you are.
The long is, neither is anyone else and humans are amazingly capable, for all their limited perception.
In the end, that's the most fascinating part of book - each chapter dismantles a popular illusion, demonstrating that we are less capable than we think we are, but the end result of the book is that you come away impressed with the human sensory system's abilities. It's really the ultimate illusion.
on August 16, 2011
This is one of very few books I can honestly say completely changed my perceptions. I used to spend a great deal of time wondering why so many people could witness the exact same event and yet come away with dramatically varying memories of what they'd seen. I also used to ponder what would make the least likely person in the room lie about something to the point where he/she seemed convinced that his distorted perception was indeed reality. This book changed all of that, and made me question many of my own memories and points-of-view. I have recommended this book to dozens of people, from lawyers I've worked for to long-time friends going through divorces. Truly eye opening, with stunning examples and exemplary research. I have nothing negative to say about this book.
on August 18, 2015
I had to read this book as part of my capstone for psychology and it was actually really interesting. And I know it says that after reading this book you'll look at everything around you differently and you really do. It's a great thinking book
on February 9, 2013
I wanted to like this book. I love the video, to which the title refers. I've used it in presentations to illustrate that there is so much in our world that we don't see or can't comprehend. And so I was hoping that the book would be an exploration of that.
I suppose it was. But, it did not go deep into inattentional blindness. Rather, it went on a linear road, discussing this bias and that logical fallacy. Frankly, I had read about them before, though some of the experiments were new. But,they went into such detail for some of the experiments that I got impatient and couldn't wait for them to circle back to the point. As a result, I didn't run back to the book as one would do when you love a book. It took me forever to read because the substantive stuff wasn't new, the new stuff wasn't engaging and there was no unifying thread other than "here's a bunch of stuff that will mess with making good decisions."
Well, having read this book, I can confidently say that I feel considerably less confident...which is (no, really) a good thing.
Chabris and Simons here set out to illuminate for us how the human brain can trick us, leading us to think we know, see and understand more than we do. Personally, I found their evidence generally convincing and their presentation generally lively and engaging. They have a nice peer-to-peer approach that keeps them from sounding condescending or overly didactic. They're not preaching, but sharing, and they don't come at it as though this is the burden of the hoi polloi, something to which our betters are immune. I could imagine having this conversation with these professors at a party...and enjoying it.
There were plenty of moments in the book when I had to pause in my reading to tell whomever was in the room with me about the interesting thing I'd just read. That's usually a good sign. An even better one: whoever happened to be in the room typically seemed to be interested. It held the attention of my perpetually distracted husband, my 12-year-old video-game obsessed son, and my visiting retired parents. My mom even called back later to clarify something that she had passed on to one of *her* friends. I'd say that's pretty broad appeal.
That said, while this book is written at a level that it should be accessible to most audiences, this isn't Andy Rooney, notwithstanding whimsical chapter titles like "The Coach Who Choked" and "What Smart Chess Players and Stupid Criminals Have in Common." The back cover tells me that an author and professor of Harvard Medical School considered it "a riveting romp"; I would not use those words myself, and I suspect that most general readers would side with me. It's simply not that boisterous or frolicsome. If you come to the book wanting to be intrigued, educated, even entertained, you have a fair chance of leaving it satisfied. If you're looking to be enthralled or left breathless with excitement, you may not.
It is a solidly good book. I recommend.