Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Invisible Gorilla

In 1906, Mark Twain wrote that Benjamin Disraeli wrote, "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." But no one else has been able to find that quote among Disraeli's works. Twain seems to have fallen victim to a common human problem: when it comes making mistakes, there are mistakes, damned mistakes, and illusions.

One of the most beguiling examples of how we get things wrong is in the famous short (37-second) video of some students bouncing and passing a basketball.  The question the narrator asks is, can you count how many times the white-shirted players pass the ball?  [If you haven't seen the video before, watch it now before you read on, because I give away the answer in the next paragraph!  Don't let me spoil it for you!]

The researchers who created this video claim that the number of bounces is irrelevant to their study.  The reason this video has gone viral is that about half of the people who watch it don't see the person who walks through wearing a gorilla suit.  (Sorry to spoil that, if you hadn't seen it before).

[By the way, if you'd like to play with further illusions, check out the website that these same scientists put together, with a collection of cute little videos featuring the phenomenon of change blindness (   My favorite video is the one showing the door illusion.]

Okay, so here I am in the middle of my three-part mini-series on books that help me get inside my kids' heads (and mine):
In their book, The Invisible Gorilla, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons claim that what is truly interesting about these experiments is not that some people don't see the gorilla or the change of clothing or the different person appearing before us; it's that we think we should have seen it.  Half of the people who watch this basketball video think everyone should have seen the gorilla, because they did see it.  The other half of the people are convinced there was no gorilla, because they didn't see it.  We think we see what we're looking at, even though so often, we don't.

This odd kind of blindness to the unexpected is one of the things that bicyclists and motorcyclists think about, especially when making left turns.  Car drivers who aren't used to looking for cyclists can stare right at a bike and not see it -- the driver will say "the bike just came out of nowhere", and the cyclist will say "the driver was looking straight at me."  We all operate under what Chabris and Simons call "the illusion of attention".

The authors call these "illusions" not just because people get stuff wrong, but because we all believe we shouldn't or we don't get them wrong.  I think my kids ought to see the mess they leave in their wake, especially because they keep walking back through it.  But they don't see it, even when they're looking right at it.  It's the illusion of attention in action.

In addition to the illusion of attention, the Chabris/Simons book describes (and gives some fascinating examples) of several other kinds of illusions.
  • The illusion of memory.    We think we remember things correctly, just because we happen to be able to remember something.  But memories are notoriously changeable -- people change their stories about what happened in the past all the time, even about significant events like 9/11 that they think are seared in our brains.

    (Just the other day, I was gleefully telling someone a story about a co-worker named Mike who had put up a sign saying "These are not my cows" when he used my office on a previous sabbatical.  Mike interrupted, reminding me that he hadn't started working at my college until the year after that sabbatical -- the story may or may not have been correct on some details, but it certainly hadn't involved him.  Whoops on me!)
  • The illusion of confidence.  This illusion has two aspects: first, that many people tend to be overconfident about their own abilities, and second, that we often interpret other people's confidence as a valid indicator of their actual ability.  As for the first, you've probably heard that the vast majority of people think of themselves as above-average drivers.  As for the second, you're more likely to trust a doctor or mechanic who says with authority, "This is your problem" than you are to trust one who says, "Hmmm . . . let me look that up in my reference book."   But it's not true that the majority of drivers are above average, and a speedy, confident diagnosis isn't necessarily better than one that involves a bit of research and thought.

    Tigger is my favorite example of the illusion of confidence, but when he moved in with us J-son became a close second.  The 11-year-old J-son very confidently predicted he could beat me at a running race (he couldn't), that he could beat his dad at biking (nope), that he knew exactly how to use my tools (yoicks), that he'd finish sewing 15 t-shirt bags by the middle of the summer (he made two).  J-son has learned a lot about his own abilities since then, but he still has a wealth of occasionally excessive confidence in himself.  It's optimism taken to extremes.  In many ways, I kind of like it.

    Sadly, one of the reasons that girls will shy away from scientific and technical careers is that they might be missing out on this illusion in the math area.  When I was in grad school, I read studies that showed that girls and boys were equally good at explaining how well they'd done to date in math classes.  But if you asked them how they'd do in future classes, boys would over-estimate their future performance ("I only got a B this semester, but next semester I'm going to nail the class and get an A") whereas girls would under-estimate themselves ("I got a B this semester, but I got lucky.  Probably I won't do as well next year, because I hear it will be a lot harder.")
  • The illusion of knowledge.  We think we know how things work, and we're surprised as all get out when someone pops that bubble.   You know what a zipper is, right?  Can you explain exactly how it works?  (Actually, I sew enough that that one, I could do -- but I couldn't explain how a key and lock work; I had to look that one up).  You know what a penny looks like, right?  If you think you do, try the penny quiz!

    I'm sure that this is related to my students who struggle in my classes.  They tell me, "I understand the math; I just can't do the problems!"   They suffer from the illusion of knowledge; they confuse familiarity with understanding.  (The book Make it Stick offers an antidote to this illusion, by the way; it's a great book on how to learn.)
  • The illusion of cause.  When N-son was 8 months old, he got an immunization shot.  It was so fast, that by the time he turned his head to see what was happening, the nurse was already putting on the band-aid.  In his head, this meant that band-aids cause pain, and for years afterward he'd holler and cry if I tried to put one on.  When he was three years old, after I removed a splinter from his foot, I put a band-aid on his toe and he hobbled around grimacing for a half-hour before I took the bandaid off, and immediately everything was fine.

    Of course, while N-son's bandaid story is cute, the illusion of cause has a more ominous connection to immunizations, with well-intentioned people relying on factually disastrous reasons to shun immunizations.  Sigh.
  • The illusion of potential.  This is the illusion that somehow there's a magic pill (or a magic video game, or a magic crossword puzzle) that can somehow unlock our brain's true-but-hidden potential.  The book slogs down a bit here.  Again, if you want to get better at something, I'd say go read Make it Stick.

This book is a page turner.  In fact, it was so readable and engaging that I read much of it out loud to my husband on our drive back from the triathalon last August, and it made for great conversations.  For both of us, it gave us a much needed injection of humility; we're more likely to say, "Well, what I remember of the event was this . . . " instead of to say "What happened was THIS!"

 And if there were any bandaged gorillas turning left on their bikes as we drove back home, well, neither of us saw them.

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