Wednesday, 21 October 2015

How can you be sure: The Invisible Gorilla

The Invisible Gorilla and Other Ways Our Intuition Deceives Us by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons
Pp. 242

If you were watching a basketball game on television and a person walked onto the court in a gorilla suit, you’d notice, wouldn’t you? Even if you were concentrating on counting the number of passes executed by one of the teams? Apparently not. In a now-famous survey conducted in 1999 by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, half of the subjects didn’t ‘see’ the gorilla, although 75% swore they would have seen it if it had been there. The fact that it was, and they didn’t, has led the two experimenters to investigate the human limits of concentration and assumption of knowledge and ability.

It’s not good news for anyone who talks on a mobile phone (hands free or otherwise) while driving. We only have a limited amount of attention, and if we split its focus, then we are not able to perform either task to full competence.

The book is subtitled ‘And other ways our intuition deceives us’, and these ways are many and varied. Generally we think we are smarter than we are, and the less ability we have, the more confidence we have in it. This illusion of confidence extends to others, as we are more likely to trust someone who expresses absolute certainty, than one who consults their colleagues and considers their opinion. 

This illusion of confidence ties in to the illusion of knowledge, by which we think we know more about a subject than we do. We understand many things on a superficial level, but not at greater depth, because we don’t have to. We may all think we know how a bicycle, a zipper or a toilet works, and this comprehension carries us through life quite adequately. But do we really know how such things operate? Try explaining it in detail and, unless you have had to fix one, you will probably soon come unstuck.

We are also under the illusion that technology is all-powerful. This is evident in examples of people blindly following sat-nav directions until they end up hundreds of miles from where they intended, or in the sea. “Technology can help us to overcome the limits on our abilities, but only if we recognise that any technological aid will have limits too. If we misunderstand the limits of the technology, these aids can actually make us less likely to notice what is around us.”

Part of this confidence trick is the use of ‘neurobabble’, in which scientific terminology is used to lend dubious theories the ring of authenticity. We have long been seduced by talk of the brain’s functioning power, and the myth that we only use 10% of its capacity is commanding. There is a widely-held belief that listening to Mozart makes us more intelligent, and although we like to think we could get smarter by doing nothing, there is no scientific basis for this illusion of potential.

And then there is the illusion of causality: people tend to find the link that suits them, even if there were other factors which have a more influential bearing on the incident, hence conspiracy theories. Because we can relate to the personal rather than the general, we are far more likely to believe an isolated anecdote from a person we know than banks of statistics.

The Invisible Gorilla suggests that we are constantly being duped – often by ourselves – and asks us to question our emotional responses. It’s not so much that everything we know is wrong, as that we don’t know nearly as much as we think we do.

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