Clever Apes: Invisible Gorillas

July 12, 2010

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What if during the World Cup finals, a unicorn pranced out onto the field. Or a woman on stilts appeared. Or, say, Wilford Brimley. You'd probably notice, right? Not necessarily, as psychologist Daniel Simons has shown.

In the late 1990s, Simons produced a video in which players dressed in either black or white are passing around a basketball. Viewers were told to count the number of passes from just the white team. Mid-play, a person in a gorilla suit wanders into the middle of the frame, beats his chest, and walks off stage-left. Only about half the people watching the video noticed the gorilla "¦ the rest just thought they saw a very boring basketball game. (Fun fact: The original gorilla suit was used to frighten children in the name of science!)

If this video sounds familiar, it's because that particular clever ape is now famous -- effectively ending his career as an invisible gorilla. But Simons, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, has managed to turn that notoriety into an advantage. He designed a new video, recreating the earlier one, but adding a couple of other unexpected events. (I won't spoil it -- check out the video for yourself). And he posed this question: would people who know about the invisible gorilla be any more likely to notice the other surprises? In other words, does expecting the unexpected make you any better at spotting it?
Not so much. Simons reports in an article out today that people who knew about the gorilla were actually slightly less likely to notice the other unexpected events in the new video. This phenomenon has the schmancy name of "inattentional blindness," meaning if you're not looking for it, you may not see it. It suggests that our eyes are not simply neutral camera lenses -- they're full of blind spots and myopias, which change according to instructions from the brain.
And, Simons says, it also implies that we have some hard limits on our attention. We can instruct ourselves to watch out for something specific, but we can't simply switch into "attentive mode," where we'd be ready for all comers. Something to think about next time I'm driving my car while talking on the phone and drinking coffee and practicing origami and watching the Daily Show on my dashboard DVD player. But I can tell you this: If a guy in a gorilla suit wanders into traffic, I'll totally be ready for him.
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