Something strange happened to me on my last day of elementary school. I was twelve-years-old. It was around lunchtime and I was sitting in the back of my homeroom class eagerly imagining the so-soon summer when suddenly—behind me—I heard an opening door. The whole class turned around to see about the sound. We were all of us utterly stupefied; for in walked a gorilla, followed by the school principal, followed by my mother holding a camcorder. The gorilla sauntered over to my desk. He handed me a bushel of bananas, lifted me out of my chair, and started shaking me violently—all while grunting great gorilla noises (“ooo-ooo-aa!-aa!-aa!” et cetera et cetera). At this point—according to the video tape—my smile fell to a flat-line and I lost most of the color from my face and neck. Yes, I knew that this was not a real gorilla but rather a human in a gorilla suit. But still: What the @#$%? Finally the gorilla, afraid—he would later claim with uniquely human empathy—that I might faint, unmasked himself. It was my father! He gave me a sandwich, did a gorilla dance, fielded some questions, and then left. By this point I was not too hungry. Through the window, I saw him taking pictures with some younger children during their recess period. Yes, I knew this was just my father being himself—a fun-loving ape. But still: What the @#$%?
According to the new book The Invisible Gorilla (Crown. 289 pp. $27)—by the cognitive psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons—if had I been more focused on Mrs. Lippman, the chalkboard, and intransitive verbs I might never have noticed that gorilla in my midst. The book, its title, and this retrospective insight derive from the now world-famous “Selective Attention Test” (over 300,000 YouTube hits). Go ahead, try it. This bizarre and brilliant experiment—which won the 2004 Ig Nobel prize, given to achievements that make people first laugh and then think—illustrates a phenomenal human limitation called inattentional blindness: if you are not paying attention, you might not see that which you are not expecting. 50% of people do not see the gorilla. For Chabris and Simons, this result serves as the crowning example of one of the “Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us”—the book’s subtitle.
The Invisible Gorilla has six chapters, each one devoted to an everyday intuitive “illusion:” of attention, memory, confidence, knowledge, cause, and potential. As evidence, each chapter features a mash-up of psychological research and pop culture reference—chiefly from film and television. The writing is light and clear, though the anecdotes begin to run together and become redundant. One particular gimmick really got to me, though perhaps it is the fault of an editor. (After all, writers must stick together and stubbornly blame the editor). I am talking here about the title of chapter three: “What Smart Chess Players and Stupid Criminals Have in Common.” Or a section of chapter five, the chapter about cause that has the most serious implications—though woefully under-explored—about our meaning-making species, “What Mother Teresa, Quentin Tarantino, and Jenny Mchy All Know.” Call it the illusion of relevant relatedness. To quote the stand-up of Craig Ferguson, that great Scottish sage: “Yes . . . I have noticed that some things are like other things.”
Chabris and Simons never claim to be writing a hard science book, though. They are in favor of soft intellectual foodstuffs, which are easier to chew and more likely to be digested by the lay public. The Invisible Gorilla is appealing and accessible, an undoubtedly triumphant application of the popular psychology formula, and sales will most likely reflect this smooth and shiny presentation. It is likely, therefore, that Chabris and Simons will have the privilege of publishing another book, which is certainly a good thing. If you enjoyed Freakonomics and any of Malcolm Gladwell’s books—though Mr. Gladwell is at times a direct target of the Gorilla‘s poop-flinging—you should pick up a copy of The Invisible Gorilla. Because you never know when your life might be interrupted by an ape.
For more, listen to Daniel Simons, co-author of The Invisible Gorilla, interviewed on this month’s Beautiful Brain Podcast: