The Invisible Gorilla

gorillaChabris and Simons have written a popular book, but one with a message.  The title is, of course, based on their experiment in which they instructed participants to count basketball passes and most missed a girl in a gorilla suit passing by for nine seconds and even thumping her chest.  As intuition has come to take a more equal footing with analysis, some have proposed going with your gut as the appropriate overriding strategy for life.  This is the myth of intuition that Chabris and Simons have targeted.

They point out six common illusions of intuition:

  1. the illusion of attention insidiously makes us think we can do two or more things at once just as well as we can do either one alone.
  2. Our memories of even the most salient events are subject to distortion even as we remain confident that they are accurate.
  3. We believe that confident people are competent people.
  4. We habitually overestimare our own knowledge(especially of how things work), and we quickly make important decisions that we might profitably stop to reflect on if we
    realized how little we really do know.
  5. We are subject to the illusion of cause that can result from a chronological sequence of events.
  6. There is an illusion of potential in which we believe that there is some unused portion of our brain that we can tap.

We mistakenly attribute the perceived fluency of our recall to the accuracy, completeness, and permanence of our memories. Fluency plays a similar role in our understanding of perception, attention, confidence, knowledge, and many other mental processes.

The key to successful decision making, Chabris and Simons believe, is knowing when to trust your intuition and when to be wary of it and do the hard work of thinking things through.

Are there times when intuition produces consistently better results than deliberation  Yes, and there is an example from a classic experiment. Suppose you were asked to participate in a blind taste test of five different brands of strawberry jam. After tasting all of the jams, but before being asked to rate their quality, you spend a couple of minutes writing down your reasons for liking and disliking each jam. Then you rate them and the results are compared to those of experts.  In the next trial, instead of writing about the jam you write about why you picked your college major or whatever. Interesting you perform much more closely to the experts in the second situation.

Why does thinking about jams make our decisions about them worse? There are two reasons. First, thinking about the jams doesn’t give us any more information about them-once we taste them-we have all the information we are going to get. Second, and Chabris and Simons think more important, is the fact that jam preference results mainly from emotional responses and not logical analysis. Emotional responses tend to happen automatically and rapidly, A decision about how something tastes is a visceral judgment that thinking about is not going to help.

There are other examples. Chabris and Simons report that thinking in words about a person’s appearance can actually impair your ability to recognize that person later. Although this possibility was known in the 1950s, interest in it was revived by a series of experiments conducted in i990, when it was given the new name “verbal overshadowing. This experiment did not involve an emotional evaluation, only an objective test of memory, but reflective deliberation did not help.

Chabris and Simons say that “deliberations will outperform intuition when you have conscious access to all the necessary data. In such cases, analysis can generate new information that will help you make a better decision.”

They conclude that you should be wary of your intuition, because it is poorly adapted to solving problems in the modern world. They recommend thinking twice before you decide to trust intuition over rational analysis, especially in important matters. They suggest that knowing about the illusions can help you avoid their consequences.

The Justifying our Decisions:  Great for Plausible Deniability, not so Great for Medical Diagnosis  post talked about situations where analysis (specifically justification) could hurt performance if the subject is not that important and not moral or political. This is similar to Chabris and Simons.

Kenneth Hammond specifically discusses The Invisible Gorilla in “Intuition, No!…Quasirationality, Yes!”  Hammond suggests that it is impossible to take Chabris and Simons recommendation to “know when to trust your intuition and when to be wary of it”.  He says that intuition’s nature makes it impossible to be aware of the fit between your intuition and the specific circumstances that allow you to know when to trust your intuition. I must agree with Hammond at least with respect to any important decision.  Chabris and Simons have not pointed out significant examples of when to trust intuition.  Hammond is not arguing with the basic premise that we should be wary of our unfiltered intuitions.

Betsch and Glockner (see Intuition in J/DM) have something to add when they see analysis as the input side and intuition as the output side.  They see a judgment or decision as a collaboration of intuition and analysis.  Information integration and output formation (e.g. preference or choice) is performed by intuitive processes whereas forming the input to integration requires analysis.  This analysis might involve looking for the most valid cues, asking an expert, or assessing consequences, or anticipating future events, etc. Your intuition needs to be educated and it takes much hard work including analysis to do that.  They might argue with Chabris and Simons statement that  “deliberations will outperform intuition when you have conscious access to all the necessary data”…  They might say that this a quite narrow group of situations.  It might be interesting to rigorously compare the experiments of Chabris and Simons with those of Betsch and Glockner.

Chabris, C. & Simons, D. (2010) The Invisible Gorilla and Others Ways 0ur Intuitions Deceive Us.  New York: Crown.

Hammond, K.R. (2010) Intuition, No!…Quasirationality, Yes! Psychological Inquiry, 21: 327-337, 2010.

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