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Surprising Science

Invisible Gorillas and Other Perceptual Illusions

Your brain doesn’t work as well as you think it does. At least that’s what psychologist Christopher Chabris argues in his new book “Invisible Gorillas,” which calls into question the power of intuition and the accuracy of snap judgments. In his Big Think interview Chabris says that, while some of the hype about intuitions is true, “there’s a whole category of intuitions that are actually systematically wrong—in very dangerous ways.” These particular offenders, he says, are “the intuitions we have about how our own minds work.”

Chabris’s book has its roots in his now-landmark “Gorillas in Our Midst” experiment published in 1999. One of the more famous experiments in psychology—what other scientific experiment has inspired a stage play?—”Gorillas” demonstrated that when asked to count the number of basketball passes in a video, subjects would often overlook comically conspicuous things, like, say, someone in a gorilla suit walking into frame and beating her chest for nine seconds.

This one experiment underlies a whole host of perceptual errors to which our brains are susceptible yet which we tend to overlook. Just as we are overly confident about our own brains, we also tend to be seduced by others’ confidence, whether they are forecasting the weather or stock markets. We also tend to assign undue confidence to our memories, especially flashbulb memories, intense recollections usually brought about by trauma, such as 9/11 or the assassination of JFK.

The bottom line is that people are overconfident in their brains’ abilities, which has wide implications, including for the criminal justice system. Chabris says, “what [people] ought to do is think a little bit more about how their intuitions about the mind might be wrong.” Technology probably isn’t going to eliminate the limitations of our brains, so we will need to come to terms with the fact that our brains are all too human.


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