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We See What We Want to See

You won't believe what the experts missed on x-rays.

One of my favorite Hollywood stories involves the legendary film director Alfred Hitchcock; one of his favorite leading ladies, Grace Kelly; and Kelly’s breasts.

Kelly had turned down the chance to star alongside Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront to play opposite Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcock’s 1954 suspense classic, Rear Window. Kelly and Hitchcock got along famously. But one day, Kelly later recalled in an interview, a minor snag developed on the set regarding Kelly’s wardrobe.

“At the rehearsal for the scene in Rear Window when I wore a sheer nightgown, Hitchcock called for [costume designer] Edith Head. He came over here and said, ‘Look, the bosom is not right, we’re going to have to put something in there.’ He was very sweet about it; he didn't want to upset me, so he spoke quietly to Edith. We went into my dressing room and Edith said, ‘Mr. Hitchcock is worried because there’s a false pleat here. He wants me to put in falsies.’

“‘Well,’ I said, ‘You can't put falsies in this, it’s going to show—and I'm not going to wear them.’ And she said, ‘What are we going to do?’ So we quickly took it up here, made some adjustments there, and I just did what I could and stood as straight as possible—without falsies. When I walked out onto the set Hitchcock looked at me and at Edith and said, ‘See what a difference they make?’”


Expectations are like that: They make us see the falsies that aren’t there. Decades of research have proven that expectation is a powerful force. It acts on our perceptions much as gravity acts on light, bending them in ways that are measurable by others, but, at least to us, imperceptible. Not only do we tend to see what we expect to see, we also tend to experience what we expect to experience. As Hitchcock proved, this can make all the difference.

Khakimullin Aleksandr/Shutterstock

The tendency to let expectation be our guide can cause even those of us who are intelligent, experienced, and well-trained to overlook some startlingly obvious things. One recent study asked a group of radiologists to examine a series of chest x-rays, just as they would if looking for lung cancer. Unknown to the radiologists, though, the researchers had inserted into the x-rays a picture of something no professional would ever expect to see: a gorilla. The picture of the gorilla wasn’t tiny; it was about 45 times the size of the average cancerous lung nodule – or about the size of a matchbook in your lung.

How many of the radiologists spotted the gorilla?

Very few. Some 83 percent of the radiologists missed the gorilla – even though eye-tracking showed that most of them had looked right at it. Just like Hitchcock, they had overlooked what was in front of their eyes. And just like the master, they had deceived themselves.


Spoto, Donald (2009). High Society: The Life of Grace Kelly. New York: Crown.

Drew, Võ & Wolfe (2013). The invisible gorilla strikes again: sustained inattentional blindness in expert observers. Psychol. Sci., Sep;24(9):1848-53. Epub 2013 Jul 17.