kw: book reviews, nonfiction, psychology, perception
Before you read further, check out this video. It is the most famous example of missing the obvious out there. We'll come back to it later.
The latest statistics show that about half of motorcycle accidents occur when the cycle hits a car, or a car hits the cycle. In a great many of these cases, the car driver says something like, "I looked before I turned, and saw nothing, but when I began to turn, there was a crash. The motorcycle came out of nowhere!" In The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us, authors Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons explain this and other scenarios as people running afoul of the Illusion of Attention. We tend to see only what we are looking for.
I have a much less life-threatening example from a fossil-collecting experience. I was taken by some friends to a "good place to collect trilobites" in the Nevada desert. We stopped by a road cut and got out of the car. I saw an expanse of gray rock with dark specks, and asked, what I should look for. One friend put his finger on a dark speck and said, "Look closely!" Suddenly I saw, it was a trilobite about an inch long. I stepped back and saw that the hillside showed thousands of them! I had seen nothing.
I hope the YouTube link above stays active for a long time. It shows six people, three wearing white t-shirts, three wearing black. You are supposed to count how many passes of a basketball are made by those wearing white. There is more than one ball, making this quite a challenge. During the action, someone in a gorilla suit walks to the center, pounds the chest, and walks off. Here is the kicker: Almost exactly half of people who watch this video do not see the gorilla! Half! The first time I saw it, I also missed the gorilla.
Seeing or not seeing is not related to intelligence (my IQ is 160), education, or even whether you like basketball, and not even if you get the number of passes correct. Just, half see and half don't. People reporting that they never saw the motorcycle they hit with their car, really did not see a motorcycle in plain view. Expectation is powerful.
As the authors explain, we don't have sufficient brain power (not even with an IQ of 200) to notice everything we see. In dangerous situations, we don't have time to take stock; we need to see the most salient threat and react to it quickly. This is why flight training simulators are so valuable. They set better expectations for pilots without putting them in grave danger, so they can quickly sort out a situation that may be rare in the air, but cannot be second-guessed. I suspect if we all were required to undergo driving simulator training, we'd be more likely to notice things like that motorcycle pulling up alongside.
Maybe not. We get used to what is usual. The illusion of attention is one of six experiences discussed and analyzed in the book. I'll touch on each one, because this is one function of my blog: to help me remember stuff I was really impressed with, but will forget after a while. And that brings up #2: The illusion of Memory. The remaining four illusions are Confidence, Knowledge, Cause and Potential.
How long did it take you to memorize your Social Security Number? For 90% of us, a nine-digit number is too long to memorize without several repetitions, and perhaps writing it down a dozen times. Telephone numbers were set up in exchanges with no more than a few million subscribers, so they could be limited to seven digits; it was known already that few people could recall more than seven digits without lots of work. To make it easier, in the early days, the sub-exchange was denoted by a word. For example, the first phone number I had was CR-7-3793, or "Crestwood 7-3793", which dialed out (no touch typing in 1954) as 277-3793. Everyone in the Crestwood area of Salt Lake City could dial one another with just the last five digits.
A memory experiment was done a generation ago. Youngsters between 7 and 12 who had been to Disneyland were asked if they'd seen Woody Woodpecker there. About a quarter said they had, and when probed for details, some told elaborate stories about holding his hand, getting a picture taken, or an autograph. But nobody had a picture or autograph, and nobody could: Woody Woodpecker is not a Disney character, and will never be seen at a Disney park (unless someone pulls off an elaborate practical joke! Hmmm). If we are wise, we use various methods to enhance our memories, and take care about what we report as "real experiences".
If you go to a doctor, who shows you in a book what the right treatment is for your condition, does this reduce your confidence in the doctor? Most of us prefer a doctor (or other expert) who expresses a complete grasp of the subject and confidently diagnoses and prescribes remedies. But which is more likely to be right? The doctor's (possibly out of date) memory, or a recent publication? It is told of E.W. Marland, founder of Conoco, that an aide of his was fired for taking notes; he told him, "I can't have someone who needs to keep his memory on a piece of paper." I have learned by experience that I can't trust someone who isn't willing to write important things down. Marland was wrong, and lost an employee he ought to have kept.
We all tend to follow confident leaders. Often, their expression of confidence is the only thing they have going for them! The biblical book of Proverbs uses two Hebrew words for FOOL. One word, used only a few times, means an ignorant person. The other word, used almost 80 times, means "SELF CONFIDENT". Solomon, the wisest man of his generation, had learned something about those who have plenty of confidence, but little to back it up. Are you a good cook? Don't just say, "I'm a Cordon Bleu chef," make me dinner. I don't care how Confident a cook you may be; I care how skilled you are.
The authors suggest you test your Knowledge by drawing a bicycle (a simple one-speed), in as much detail as you can. Did you remember to put in the front and back gear, the chain, the pedals, axles, and everything else? Here is a simpler one: draw one of the chairs in your dining room. What kind of back does it have? Are there braces holding the legs? How many slats in the back, if there are slats? We all know how to use a radio. How many of us could make a radio? One gift my father gave me when I was eight was an old wind-up bedside clock. He suggested I take it apart and put it back together. When I got it working again, I really knew what made a clock tick! Our lives are full of things we know only in superficial ways. What in your life could you write a Wikipedia article about?
The illusion of Cause is a big one. "Lung Cancer Causes Smoking!" This headline ran on a spoof paper some of us produced in high school. At that time, there were still TV ads for cigarettes and cigars, and the tobacco industry was pulling out all the stops to prevent the government from mandating the warning labels you find on all tobacco products (and lots of others, now). Let's think about smoking and lung cancer. While it has since been proven that chemicals in tobacco smoke do indeed cause cancer, in the 1960s the argument was made that "correlation does not imply causation", and that perhaps some third factor resulted in both cancer and in a tendency to use nicotine. Or that people predisposed to cancer were also more likely to smoke.
It is quite true that correlation does not mean causation. But as a joke based on another proverb has it, "The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong,...but that's the way to bet!" (The Bible quote is actually from Ecclesiastes) Anecdotes that seem to support a cause-and-effect are powerful, because our emotions make such strong memories (the illusion of memory gets involved here). Consider vaccination as a purported cause of autism. Kids get vaccinated for Measels (and Mumps and Rubella) with the MMR shot at about one year of age. Autism, when it occurs, is usually noticed between 15 and 18 months of age. Some parents have concluded that the vaccination caused the autism. They need to consider this fact: Vaccination with MMR has not been performed in Japan since 1993, but the rate of autism is exactly the same as it was before that. One might as well say that weaning causes autism, because it also happens before autism is noticed.
Finally, there is the illusion of Potential, most markedly seen in the (totally debunked) "Mozart effect". The thesis is simple: listening to certain sonatas by Mozart was claimed to raise the IQ of children by eight or nine points. While one study was published reporting this magnitude of "effect", it has never been reproduced by anyone else. It is more likely (this is me speaking) the Hawthorne Effect: People do better when they are paid attention to. The world is full of self-help advice on how to "easily" think better, read faster, do math, get stronger, or learn a musical instrument.
The reality is based on a number you really, really need to know: 10,000. It takes ten thousand hours of practice to become expert at something. Good readers read well because they read a lot. Math only comes easily to those who have done a lot of math.
I sometimes say I learned guitar easily. Actually, I easily learned the things that are easy to learn, about ten chords and a couple of strumming patterns. Beyond that, I think it had more to do with this: I played ukulele with my Dad from age eight to eleven. We sang together a lot. He got a 4-string banjo, tuned it like a tenor guitar (the same as a baritone ukulele), and we both played that for the next three years. Then my Mom got her old guitar out of the attic (I still have it), and showed me what to do with the extra two strings. She also showed me one tune she could do, where she played chords in a way that you could hear most of the melody, and told me that the tunes to most songs are "mostly in the chords".
Guess what I did for the next three years? I practiced four hours daily, for the good feeling of learning something new, making a sound I hadn't made before, and perfecting techniques I could see on TV shows such as "Hootenanny". During those same three years, we had a monthly singing evening at our house, with musical friends. Then, when I went to college, the "coffee shop" craze was just beginning, and I played every weekend. I also had a roommate who was a trombone player, and we learned some musical ideas from each other. Now it is up to you if that was "easy" or not. With all that background, of course I am good on the guitar!
And in spite of all that, I frequently meet people who have less experience than I do who can play things I cannot play. The range of guitar techniques is so vast, nobody can learn them all. There will always be someone who knows something few others can do equally well. I have my own signature licks that I've never heard anyone else do. If you want to do something well, do it four hours a day for ten years, or do it all day for five years. This is the reason that businesses like to hire someone with five years' experience. That is what it takes to become an expert.
So the illusion of potential is really an illusion of easy expertise. Sorry, but that is an oxymoron. I mentioned above one reason I write this blog: as a memory aid. There is another: to become a better writer. I cannot write for eight hours a day, but if I write for an hour a day, it is better than not writing. Because of college and graduate school, I put in lots of hours writing during the 1970s and '80s. It's a pity there weren't blogs already (none that I heard of, anyway). One does what one can.
Even knowing about these six illusions, how can we avoid their more dire consequences? Will our knowing about the motorcycle effect make it any safer for a motorcycle to zoom past you or me? I don't know, and the authors don't know. Will we still fall prey to every confident-sounding charlatan out there? Maybe sometimes. It is hard to say "No" sometimes. This is why we seldom answer the phone; we let people leave a message. Listening to the message gives us time to consider whether the call is reasonable, and we don't need to worry so much about being on all the "don't call" lists. Our friends know we'll call them back.
Now that I know the gorilla is there, I always see it when I watch the video, but I suspect there are other situations in which I fail to see what is right in front of me. I have learned to hesitate a little, to look or think twice. A little humility isn't just good for the soul, sometimes it is a lot safer, too.