The Invisible Gorilla

The first viral video I remember in college is the eponymous video from this study, the invisible Gorilla. It came from a psych study of the same name where the researchers showed their subjects a video of people passing basketballs back and forth, some wearing white shirts and some black. They asked the viewers to count the number of times the people wearing white shirts passed their basketball. Then they asked them if they noticed a person in a gorilla suit. About half of the participants missed the gorilla, who walks through the middle of the game, turns to the camera, and beats its chest.

The experiment tested selective attention, showing how when the mind is focused on a particular task, particularly when that task involves tracking unfamiliar patterns, people are much more likely to miss what they are not explicitly tracking. When I watch the video I see the gorilla, but sometimes miss at least one of the passes.

In Invisible Gorilla, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons explain this and other experiments, supplemented with real world examples, to give an engaging explanation for how the mind works, covering issues from attention to confidence to the potential for growth.

If I had to put a thesis to Invisible Gorillas it is that the human mind is extraordinarily well adapted for pattern recognition and focusing on individual tasks, but is easily overwhelmed.

Invisible Gorillas offers an exceptionally compelling discussion of (relatively) recent developments in the science of memory and intuition. Some sections of the book dated themselves. While talking about the illusion of patterns and predictive behavior, for instance, they praise John Roberts’ explanation in the Shelby County supreme court decision that struck down the Voting Rights Act, which has aged poorly in ways that were entirely predictable for reasons cultural, historical, and political. If these case studies can be misguided, I can only imagine that the science has developed since the original publication in 2010.

In general, though, I have little negative to say, and found that it offers a few practical lessons. Given the title of the book, the top-line takeaway is the dangers of divided attention. Chabris and Simons spend a significant amount of space talking about driving and other activities that people can do while distracted under ideal circumstances, but explain that distraction primarily interferes with the ability to adapt to the unexpected.

Secondarily, they explain, people overestimate their ability to multitask. I have noticed this when it comes to my writing. I often multitask when writing blog posts, with something on a second screen that I can passively absorb but don’t care if I miss anything. By contrast, when I’m working on projects I hope to publish, I have to eliminate distractions by closing down social media, turning off podcasts or anything visual, and often turn up music on my headphones.

(Chabris and Simons debunk the urban myth that listening to classical music makes one smarter in the illusion of potential; the music I listen to while writing varies, and I find the beat matters more than the genre because I usually tune the songs out.)

But as much I already knew and/or had discovered the issues with illusions of attention, the two studies I found particularly valuable were the illusion of confidence and false beliefs about memory.

On the former, people trust those who express confidence more than those willing to express doubt. In 2019, this is more important than ever. It would be easy to tie this illusion to any number of political and media issues, but I saw a relevance here for academia, too. I have long believed that one of the greatest disservices the US educational system does to students, particularly through standardized tests, is to make them believe that they need to have all of the answers. In turn, this means I try to model for my students how to not-know the answers; that is, to teach them to place confidence in being able to find explanations rather than in feigning them through confident bluster even though, as Chabris and Simons explain, society generally values the latter.

The latter caught my attention because I have been working with memory as a historical construct. I introduced this post with a memory of watching the invisible gorilla video in college, which I thought was a viral video, perhaps on Youtube. The facts line up: I was in college around the time the video made news and Youtube and Facebook both existed. In truth, though, I don’t actually know that this was when or how I saw the video, only that I have been aware of the video for a long time. This inconsistency is exactly the point of Chabris and Simons’ section on memory: memory is malleable and flawed, connected to our emotions and experiences, and highly impressionable. My reading of historical memory is that the same holds true, except with more intentionality behind the shaping of memory.

There is also more to Invisible Gorillas that is worth consideration, including discussion of why we believe so strongly in the potential to improve ourselves quickly and the way in which people tend to misunderstand probabilities. In short, this is a worthwhile read on a number of levels, from simple curiosity to practical applications in a range of settings.


I just started Toni Morrison’s Beloved because her passing reminded me that I had never read any of her books even though I’ve been trying to read more African and African-American authors. I am only a few chapters in, but am so far finding it viscerally affecting and awkwardly voyeuristic in a way that is making me particularly conscious of my whiteness. The last part is heightened by having seen clips of Morrison commenting on tone deaf critiques of her literature as not addressing white audiences.

2 thoughts on “The Invisible Gorilla

  1. First, I just want to say that BELOVED is one of my all-time favorite novels, and I want to be Toni Morrison when I grow up. BUT, that being said, I read BELOVED once, and only once because it completely killed me at the end. It’s much like the film, “The Mission,” which I loved, saw once, and can never watch again because the ending was so very powerful. Just…be aware. It may not affect you the same.

    And sometimes, I think it’s a good thing to be made uncomfortable in our whiteness. (I may, technically, be “pink,” but in terms of privilege, I am effectively white.)

    Last, on both modeling “not knowing” as well as memory…that was the most interesting aspect. I get very impatient with those who have to know ALL the answers, and comment constantly at conferences in virtually all sessions, even outside their areas, etc. If I don’t know an answer to a student’s question, I promise to look it up (and do).

    But memory is especially interesting, yes, for what we do. As you’ve probably read elsewhere, work on the brain, memory, and “tricks” like hypnosis have shown not just how we remember, but how we rewrite our own pasts. Unless something is highly traumatic, children tend to remember only what they’re reminded of because it was a funny story. And different people have different abilities to remember.

    When I was a child, my grandfather (native) used to take us into stores or other places, then when we’d leave, he’d quiz us on details, such as the type of light fixtures in the ceiling, the color of the carpet, how many rows were on shelves, etc. Then we’d go back in to see what we’d missed. It was SUCH a great exercise in teaching us to really NOTICE our surroundings. (And later, I think it helped a lot in my writing.) But that sort of “memory work” isn’t something we do a lot with kids, and perhaps should.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. To the first, I agree that the discomfort is a good thing because it means that I am appropriately conscious of the world around me, which is whiter than I would prefer. Diversity done right makes the world more equitable, more interesting, and, if some of the studies I’ve read are to be believed, more productive. In part this lies behind my decision to consciously insert more books by African Americans into my reading.

      To the second, one of my favorite college professors did the same thing, but I also once had an argument with another student over the efficacy of her classes because to the other student the open-ended discussions came across as disorganized so that she felt she wasn’t learning anything. I’ve never brought myself to go quite that far, but I do try to model the not-knowing and coming back with answers after hunting down answers. My problem is that I sometimes am able to come up with a plausible explanation even if I don’t have “the” answer, which I need to be aware of.

      Your grandfather’s quiz does sound like a great exercise. It reminds me of similar scenes in books and movies where the hero or tracker is able to eventually train up to such skill that they have perfect recall of a scene (Sherlock Holmes stories do this a lot), except that in addition to inevitably missing things and/or prioritizing different information, which might be of particular use in writing fiction, I would then wonder how long those memories last. The activity does, but the specifics of what you saw?

      But, then, you hit the nail on the head with how we write and rewrite our pasts every time we remember––and, as much as some people don’t want to hear it, every time we write history. In turn, this makes studying historical memory fascinating in its own right, even if it is a bit “meta”.


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