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A Must Read: The Invisible Gorilla

A book about why we don't see invisible gorillas.

In my next-to-last blog, I reviewed two recent psychology releases that I actually enjoyed reading. Now I'll recommend one of the best psychology books I've read. My biggest qualm about the book is that it crushes one of my favorite in-class demonstrations.

I first encountered Daniel Simons, the second author of the book in question, when he gave a talk at my graduate school. The only words I remembered from the title were "visual" and "cognition," so I went out of a sense of duty. I've always gravitated toward "soft cognitive" psychology and away from "hard cognitive" - indeed, there are entire (huge) domains within cognitive psychology that I understand remarkably poorly. I vaguely remember that we have myelin sheaths. I'm still not sure what they do. Maybe they store our memories of the first time we tried seafood.

Anyway, Simons, to my surprise, gave the best talk I've ever seen. Not one of the best talks - the best talk. He started with a video like this:

And I was hooked. Inattentional blindness - I'd never heard those words before. But the idea that we simply don't notice things - obvious things! - was fascinating. He showed videos of experiments in which a student holding a basketball asked a passerby for directions. In the course of the hapless passerby's interaction with the student, a confederate snuck up behind the student and took the basketball away. After the directions were over, the student asked the passerby, "Do you notice anything different about me?" Most participants didn't notice that the basketball was gone. As if this wasn't enough, they did one better - observe:

The coup d ‘grace, however, was here:

I love this video. I show it to my critical thinking class every year and at least half the class assume that I'm joking when I say there was a gorilla. So I go back and show the video again, some people still think I've been showing them two different videos.

I still hold Simons' initial talk as the apex of what all psychology talks could be (and what most do not reach). It was scientific, interesting, and with real-world applications (which I will discuss shortly).

So my biggest reservation about Daniel Simons' new book, The Invisible Gorilla, written with his colleague Christopher Chabris, is that they're spoiling the shock of the video. All it takes is for a few people in the class to remember seeing the book in a Barnes and Noble and the effect is gone.

That aside, this is an amazing book. It explains the real reason why talking on your cell phone while driving is dangerous. It isn't because of reduced motor control (indeed, all of the new cell phone laws, which require a hands-free device, are quite misguided). It's because it drains your attentional resources. You don't believe you're impaired because you can perform the basic task just fine - most people don't veer off the road while chatting on their phone. The problem comes when you enter a rare, sudden event -- a deer charges into the road or a ghost materializes in your back seat and starts singing Bob Dylan songs. You're much more likely to get into an accident in these unexpected circumstances if you are distracted by the phone. The Invisible Gorilla tells us why we sometimes remember other people's stories as our own. It discusses why it's okay to go to a doctor who says "I'm not sure; let me check" instead of the doctor who is always confident. It explains why brainstorming usually doesn't work and why movies have so many continuity errors.

It is quite rare that I read a psychology book aimed at laypeople and then push it on people. Robert Cialdini's Influence was one such book (and it remains on my "required reading" list). The Invisible Gorilla is another. There are all sorts of things that people expect me to know because I'm a psychologist (thankfully, knowing how to fix the sink isn't one of them). Reading books like Influence and The Invisible Gorilla teaches me those things. Indeed, my second hesitation is recommending the book is if more people that read it then more people will already know my cool psychology anecdotes. In the interest of the greater good, however, I am writing this book review.

My last blog can be found here.

My next blog can be found here.

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