BOOK REVIEW: 'The Invisible Gorilla': The Importance of Being Less Confident

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'The Invisible Gorilla': The Importance of Being Less Confident
 It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so. -- Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens) 1835-1910, American author 

If a person dressed in a full-body gorilla suit passed through a group of basketball players moving around and making shots, would you notice the "gorilla"? The chances are 50-50 that you wouldn't, according to Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, authors of "The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us" (Broadway Paperbacks, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, 320 pages, $14.00) and the creators of the famous "Gorillas in Our Midst" experiment.

Christopher Chabris
Christopher Chabris

The experiment was conducted at the end of the 1990s when Simons had just arrived at Harvard and Chabris was a graduate assistant in the psychology department. Dan Simons manned the video camera and directed, with some of the student players dressed in black and others in white passing the ball and moving around. The tapes were edited and shown to volunteers who were asked to count the number of passes made by the white garbed players, while ignoring any passes made by players dressed in black. The experiment was repeated numerous times in the dozen years since it was devised and the authors say the results are the same: Half the people viewing the videos don't notice the person dressed in a gorilla suit.

Simons and Chabris say they wrote "The Invisible Gorilla" to make readers less sure of themselves, through the use of the gorilla experiment, published in 1999 in the psychology journal Perception and referenced many times since, including an episode of  the TV show "CSI" and the many other experiments and incidents described in the book.

Daniel Simons
Daniel Simons

In "The Invisible Gorilla" you'll read about a cop in pursuit of a man failing to notice a fellow police office beating a black plainclothes cop; about Pittsburgh's most famous motorcycle-car collisions, the one in 2006 involving Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on a Suzuki Hayabusa and Martha Fleishman in a Chrysler New Yorker. As a long-time motorcycle rider (I no longer ride, dreading the multi-tasking cell phone users in cars and trucks) who had a number of near-misses, I could appreciate the inevitable "I didn't see him" statement from the car driver. Roethlisberger, 23 at the time, was lucky, especially since he wasn't wearing a helmet (he was cited for that and not having the right license) and made a full recovery in time for the season opener in September 2006. Fleishman was cited and fined for failing to yield.

About that excuse of mine for giving up motorcycle riding, "cagers" (car and truck drivers) using cell phones, Chabris and Simons back me up, citing overwhelming evidence that people can't multitask and maintain control, that even hands-free headsets don't reduce the distraction. We notice when other drivers are distracted, but we don't notice our own distraction because we think we're superior. The central truth of the book, the authors say, is "Our minds don't work the way we think they do. We think we see ourselves and the world as they really are, but we're actually missing a whole lot." 

Childhood autism and vaccinations for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR)? The authors demolish the myth that vaccinations cause autism, a belief spread by an attractive blonde mom named Jenny McCarthy, not noted for scientific expertise, but rather for her Playboy photos. I recall a few years ago radio and TV personality Don Imus discussing the same subject. The result: many parents, for religious reasons and other excuses, are failing to have their children vaccinated, leading to an increase in dangerous childhood diseases and especially endangering children who can't be immunized because of cancer treatments such as chemotherapy they're undergoing.

Playing Mozart to make a baby smarter doesn't make any more sense than the vaccination-autism connection, but parents continue to believe -- because we're tempted by the lure of quick fixes and effortless self-improvement. The winners: marketers of such products. We think we experience and understand the world as it is, but our thoughts are beset by everyday illusions. We write traffic laws and build criminal cases on the (usually false)  assumption that people will notice when something out of the ordinary happens right in front of them. 

Confidence is a bad thing, a costly thing, when we subscribe to the belief that confident people are more likely to succeed. They often do, but not for the reasons most people believe. This misplaced trust in confident people contributes to false convictions in courts (when a rape victim, for instance, confidently identifies the wrong man) and to the deceptive power of con(fidence) men like Bernie Madoff.

If you haven't cracked a psychology book since taking Pysch 101, pick up "The Invisible Gorilla" and be entertained and enlighted. This book could provide material for an entire season -- maybe even two seasons -- of  one of my favorite TV shows, Penn and Teller's "Bullshit."

About the authors
Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons met at Harvard University in 1997, where they began to collaborate on research. In 2004 they received the Ig Nobel Prize in Psychology, awarded for "achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think," for the experiment that inspired "The Invisible Gorilla."  Chabris  received his B.A. in computer science and his Ph.D. in psychology from Harvard University, where he was also a Lecturer and Research Associate for many years. He is now Assistant Professor of Psychology at Union College in Schenectady, New York. Simons received his B.A. in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Carleton College and his Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology from Cornell University. He then spent five years on the faculty at Harvard University before moving to Illinois in 2002. His scholarly research focuses on the limits of human perception, memory, and awareness, and he is best known for his research showing that people are far less aware of their visual surroundings than they think.
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