The authors, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, won the 2004 Ig Nobel Prize in Psychology for Gorillas in Our Midst, a groundbreaking and world-famous experiment where they asked volunteers to watch a 60 second film of students playing basketball and told them to count the number of passes made. About halfway through, a woman dressed in a gorilla outfit strolled to the centre of the screen, beat her chest at the camera and then walked away. Half the volunteers missed seeing the gorilla…
Yep. It made my jaw drop, too. Unless you’ve already heard of the experiment, of course. Many people have, by all accounts. But before you shrug your shoulders and dismiss it as yet another oddball piece of human behaviour that doesn’t really apply to everyday life, just stop and think of the ramifications for a long moment. And if your imagination still fails you, then pick up this book and read on. You need to know what it has to say. Really.
A policeman called Kenny Conley, while chasing an armed criminal, failed to notice a brutal beating by fellow officers nearby. In a crackdown aimed at making an example of the officers involved, Conley was accused of perjury and obstruction of justice. During the trial, the jurors couldn’t believe he ran past the beating without noticing it. He was sentenced to thirty-four months in jail and fired from the Boston police force, after the Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal. However, when Chabris and Simons published their findings, they were contacted by a reporter who had begun to believe that Conley was telling the truth. Based on their evidence, there was a retrial, at which point it was shown that as Conley was entirely focused on the armed criminal he was chasing, it was highly likely that he didn’t notice anything else. Finally in 2006, Conley was reinstated by the Boston Police Force and awarded over $600,000 in back pay and the following year, he was promoted to detective. This is just one of the amazing stories that the book charts as it challenges a raft of our assumptions about ourselves and what we can do. We generally over-estimate our ability to multi-task; instinctively believe people who project confidence, whether or not they are competent; rely on our snap decisions for more heavily than we should; and think we are more capable than we are—with some scary consequences.
Despite the fact that it is written by two psychology professors, the writing style is clear and accessible, while the subject matter is absolutely riveting. If you write any kind of fiction, I highly recommend this book to you. It will give you all sorts of counter-intuitive evidence you can use to tweak those off-the-wall scenarios you have swirling around in your head.
On a more mundane yet vital level, if you are in the habit of conducting long conservations using a hands-free phone during car journeys, then you should urgently read Chabris and Simons’ findings on what that does to your ability to drive your car safely. Basically, they discovered that while folks are chatting on the phone, their driving is significantly impaired. However, if you are talking to a passenger, the same impairment doesn’t occur…
If you don’t pick up any other non-fiction book this year, I urge you to read this one. Your life may depend upon it.