It only seems natural for me to read a book on how intuitions deceive us while vacationing in the Outer Banks. Home from OBX for over two weeks now, my partners swear I'm deceiving myself that I'm still in Nags Head enjoying surf, tuna and crabs. Back to work, they urge.
"The Invisible Gorilla, and Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us" by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons is an engaging, thought-provoking book that's reinforced the thinking of several tomes I've written on for Information Management. The title derives from experiments the psychology professors have conducted on limitations in visual human attention.
In the experiments, subjects watch a video and are asked to count the number of basketball passes made by actors with white shirts, ignoring those in black. About halfway through, a female student “wearing a full-body gorilla suit walked into the scene, stopped in the middle of the players, faced the camera thumped her chest, and then walked off, spending about nine seconds onscreen.” After having subjects tabulate the passes, the experimenters ask pointed questions about whether they'd seen anything unusual or had actually noticed the gorilla. “Amazingly, roughly half of the subjects in our study did not notice the gorilla! Since then the experiment has been repeated many times, under different conditions, with diverse audiences, and in multiple countries, but the results are always the same: About half the people fail to see the gorilla.”
According to the authors: “The gorilla study illustrates, perhaps more than any other, the powerful and pervasive influence of the illusion of attention: We experience far less in of our visual world than we think we do.” The book painstakingly details this illusion, as well as five others that drive us to predictably faulty decision-making. These include memory, confidence, knowledge, cause and potential.
A quick summary of the basic messages of "Gorilla?" “Intuition tells us that we pay attention to more than we do, that our memories are more detailed and robust than they are, that confident people are competent people, that we know more than we really do, that coincidences and correlations demonstrate causation, and that our brains have vast reserves of power that are easy to unlock.”
The illusion of cause is especially nettlesome for the conduct of business. Leaders routinely make errors attributing cause and effect. “First we perceive patterns in randomness, and we interpret these repeating patterns as predictions of future events. Second, we look at events that happen together as having a causal relationship. Finally, we tend to interpret events that happen earlier as the causes of events that happened or appeared to happen later....We have no trouble inferring causes – the real trouble is that we are sometimes too good at inferring causes for our own good.”
The authors cite the illusion of narrative – the good story - “where we compulsively assume causation when all we have is chronological order”, as a major culprit in errors of cause and effect. While as solid academics, Chabris and Simons are unabashed advocates of the experimental method to test their illusion hypotheses, paradoxically, it's the outstanding stories introducing each illusion that distinguish "Gorilla" as a psychology read.
Mapping the memory illusion to the now-famous player choking incident of ex-basketball coach Bobby Knight and illustrating the unlimited potential illusion of the performance-enhancing mania surrounding the music of Mozart, bring the psychology to life in ways that mundane experiments cannot alone. Much as I'm a proponent of the “science of business,” it's hard to get too excited about the results of experiments on Harvard undergraduate psychology students.
Similar messages about knowledge, cause and potential are prevalent in business literature. Phil Rosenzweig's 2007 classic, "The Halo Effect - and the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers," delightfully chronicles the market's never-sated appetite for “research” detailing formulas for business success by more-than-willing management gurus. In addition to the halo effect, in which evaluations of people or organizations on one dimension are generalized to other dimensions without substantiation, discussions of the narrative illusion and the delusion of correlation and causality are particularly noteworthy among the nine delusions discussed.
Financial and investment scold Nassim Nicholas Taleb takes on randomness and causality in his caustic 2007 tomes, "Fooled By Randomness" and "The Black Swan." As I noted in an IM article several years ago on the combined books: “The point of departure for 'Fooled by a Random Black Swan' is that the human brain sees the world as less random, and conversely, more well-behaved than it actually is. We often mistake pure luck for skill, and indeed, often elevate lucky fools to guru status. We are wired for certainty, determinism and causality, even when they don't exist. We think linearly, continuously and symmetrically, elevating the bell curve to religious status.”
The gorilla's illusions also bring to mind findings of behavioral economics, which challenge the utility-maximizing rationality of economic man. Like "Gorilla" authors Chabris and Simons, business ethics professor Dan Ariely uses the experimental method to demonstrate that behavior is decidedly and “predictably irrational.” Among B.E. findings are that rather than acting as economic calculating machines, humans often use simple rules of thumb or heuristics to choose among alternative decision choices. As such, they're easy victims of non-optimizing biases such as status quo, self serve, loss aversion and gambler's fallacy.
And so it seems we're hopelessly attention deficited, have memories like sieves, are suckers for glib charlatans, are a fraction as smart as we think, are unable to distinguish randomness from scientific rigor, and foolishly believe in the potential to grow beyond our considerable weaknesses.
But just when I'm driven to despair by this havoc imposed on the human condition by illusions, delusions, biases and randomness, I read the laissez-faire admonitions of WSJ "Gorilla" reviewer David Shaywitz: “Unsparing awareness of our limitations might be paralyzing and would certainly make for a rather dismal life. I also wonder how many great achievements would have been possible without an entrepreneur's excessive confidence, an artist's grand plans, a researcher's immodest ambitions.”
"The Drunkard's Walk" author Leonard Mlodinow would add that perseverance in the face of randomness and failure is also key. “There exists a vast gulf of randomness and uncertainty between the creation of a great novel – or a piece of jewelry or chocolate-chip cookie – and the presence of huge stacks of that novel – or jewelry or bag of cookies – at the front of thousands of retail outlets. That's why successful people in every field are almost universally members of a certain set – the set of people who don't give up.”