Daniel J. Simons
We all are amateur psychologists. We intuitively grasp the reasons for our own behavior and that of others. We have privileged access into the workings of our own minds. After all, who can know us better than we know ourselves? We see the world as it is, we know what we know, and we know why we hold the beliefs we do. Or do we?
Imagine you are watching a video in which people are passing basketballs. Your task is just to count how many times the players wearing white jerseys pass the ball. Of course, you would notice if a person in a gorilla suit walked through the middle of the video, pausing in the center of the game to thump his chest at you, and casually strolled off the screen. Wouldn’t you? As it turns out, about 50% of people who watch this video don’t see the gorilla at all! Yet, 90% of people are firmly convinced that they would. That mismatch between what we see and what we think we will see is what we call “The Illusion of Attention.” It is one of many ways that our intuitions about our own mind fail to live up to reality, and one of the illusions that can affect your motorcycling experiences.
This illusion is central to why car drivers so often turn left in front of oncoming motorcycles, failing to yield the right of way. We assume that as long as we keep our eyes on the road, if something important happens, we’ll notice it. But, it’s entirely possible to look right at something without seeing it, and unexpected objects and events often fail to capture our attention. In most places, motorcycles are less common on the road than are cars. Consequently, they are unexpected, and to a large extent, we see only what we expect to see.
Unfortunately, our daily experiences reinforce the intuition that we’ll notice anything that matters — we only become aware of those things we happened to notice. If you missed the gorilla and I never asked you about it, you’d never know that you had missed anything. In fact, you can look right at the gorilla and still not see it. That’s why drivers often claim to have looked in the direction of a motorcyclist before turning, yet still never saw them. And, it’s why motorcyclists often claim that drivers made eye contact before failing to yield the right of way. Both are telling the truth, but both assume that looking is the same thing as seeing.
The illusion of attention affects riders too. Motorcyclists assume they will notice impending risks and hazards even if they are not looking for them. They can miss information that is plainly visible.
The illusion of attention is one of several examples of mistaken intuitions about our own minds. We have cognitive limitations that are a necessary byproduct of the way our minds work. For example, we need to be able to focus attention without being distracted, and that ability is a good thing. Our mistaken understanding of it is not. In “The Invisible Gorilla,” Christopher Chabris and I discuss how our beliefs about what we see, think, and remember can mislead us in important ways. Throughout the book, we consider the implications of these everyday illusions for our well-being and safety.
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