Some things are too sensitive to be discussed. No wants to talk about the eight-hundred pound gorilla in the room, as the saying goes. The ‘gorilla’ could be a problem that causes defensiveness or embarrassment or something so potent that to acknowledge its presence is dangerous to yourself or the group. So there is the looking away, the pretending that it isn’t there. No one talks about the real problem, the eight-hundred pound gorilla. It is the unspoken presence.
The phrase “eight hundred pound gorilla” (or the six hundred and nine hundred pound variations) refers to something that everyone knows about and refuses to comment upon. But what if it weren’t figurative but a real gorilla in the room? Is it possible that while in the room it won’t be seen?
I recently did just this experiment in my class. Here were graduate students in the business school who had just gone through a lecture/discussion about the importance of awareness in ethics. The point was that if you don’t see a problem, then you won’t do anything about it. It becomes hard even to ascribe responsibility when a person is oblivious. For example, if you are the beach and someone is drowning nearby, if you have your earbuds in and are engrossed in your book so that you don’t either hear or see the person, you can’t be judged immoral for not responding to the cries for help.
There is much that goes on around us that is like the drowning person and many go about their business unaware of the distress. That was the point of the two-hour long discussion.
“So let’s end the class with something fun,” I said. I then showed them the following video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJG698U2Mvo
What they watched was the Chabris and Simons demonstration in which two teams, one in white shirts and the other in black shirts, pass a basketball back and forth. Viewers are instructed to count the number of passes made by the white-shirt team. My students, mostly working adults taking the nighttime class, diligently counted the passes and reported the results. Nearly all were right.
“Did you notice anything else?” I asked.
About half said they saw a gorilla walk across the court. The other half was incredulous, including one who was a surgeon and chief of a volunteer fire department. I then showed them the rest of the video. And sure enough there is a woman dressed in a gorilla suit who walks amongst the teams, thumps her chest and walks off camera, in view for 10 seconds.
That’s right, a gorilla in front of their eyes and half the class didn’t see it! This was consistent with other findings. Thousands have watched this video and about half don’t notice the gorilla.
In summarizing the Chambris and Simons findings, Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking, Fast and Slow, says that those who fail to see the gorilla are initially sure it wasn’t there—as were my students. “The gorilla study illustrates two important facts about our minds: we can be blind to the obvious, and we also blind to our blindness.”
When we focus intently on one thing, we don’t see other things. This helps get the immediate task done but can also be a severe limitation. Real gorillas in real rooms are dangerous.