Benjamin Franklin’s observation about extremely hard things suggests that we should question the intuitive belief that we understand ourselves well. As we go through life, we act as though we know how our minds work and why we behave the way we do. It is surprising how often we really have no clue.
I distinctly remember sitting in my Psychology 101 class at the University of British Columbia. It was at Hebb Theatre, across from the Student Union Building. My friend and I were seated near the top of the lower portion, toward the right as you face the front of the lecture hall. This would have been in the fall of 2000 and my professor, Dr. Paul Hewitt, was about to show us a short video clip.
You may have seen this video yourself, even if you’ve never taken a university psychology course. The video and the resulting discussions caught the attention of mainstream media. Or you may have missed it entirely. The clip is only about a minute long, so let’s get everyone up to speed with this clip from Simons and Chabris:
If this was your first time watching this video, did you see the invisible gorilla? Or maybe the title of today’s blog post gave it away. Maybe it primed you to look for a gorilla, or at least something out or the ordinary. It’s mind-boggling to think that a sizable portion of people don’t see the invisible gorilla the first time they watch this video.
This goes well beyond something that is hiding in plain sight. And as we learn from The Invisible Gorilla by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, the “obvious” intuitions we all have can be terribly deceptive. If the gorilla is right there, thumping its chest, of course everyone would notice it, right? Except they don’t.
But that’s not the only obvious intuition that deceives us.
My very memory of watching the invisible gorilla clip in psychology class could be deceiving me. Just because a memory seems to be especially vivid does not mean it is particularly accurate. In a sense, we re-create our memories every time we think of them. While I’m fairly certain about Dr. Hewitt and Hebb Theatre, it may have been the case that we didn’t see this video until Spring 2001 and not Fall 2000. Psychology 101 was a two-semester course.
The book goes through several of these deceptive intuitions. We tend to believe that confident people are more competent, but that’s not necessarily the case. We’re more inclined to believe a guy in a white lab coat speaking confidently… but why? The disheveled and neurotic fellow stumbling over his words could actually be the one who is “right.”
Or as Charles Bukowski once put it, “The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.”
As you make your way through The Invisible Gorilla, the authors discuss six common illusions. I’ve mentioned the illusions of attention, memory and confidence here. They also talk about the illusion of knowledge (can you really draw a bicycle from memory?), cause (just because one thing follows another doesn’t mean it was caused by it), and potential (does classical music make babies smarter?). It’s all a thoroughly fascinating read and I highly recommend it.
While we may not be cured of these illusions, just being aware of them can help us rethink some of our most common, if oftentimes subconscious, assumptions.