The Invisible Gorilla

The task seemed simple enough. Watch a 40-second video and count how many times the people in white shirts pass a basketball.

Only there was a slight twist. About midway through the video a giant gorilla strolls onto frame, looks at the camera, pounds his chest, and slowly walks away.

It seems silly to even ask — but how many people failed to see the gorilla?

The results speak for themselves. Half of the participants did not report seeing the gorilla walk across the screen. It’s like the gorilla was completely invisible.

How is this possible?

The culprit is a phenomenon called inattentional blindness, where “….an individual fails to perceive an unexpected stimulus in plain sight. When it becomes impossible to attend to all the stimuli in a given situation, a temporary ‘blindness’ effect can occur…”.

The research into the root causes of inattentional blindness points to a handful of theories, but I’d like to focus on two: Mental Workload and Expectation.

The Mental Workload Theory states, “when a person focuses a lot of attention on one stimulus, he/she focuses less attention on other stimuli.” This makes sense. When we’re talking on the phone while driving, our attention is on the conversation and not the stop sign we blew through. This also helps explain why half the people didn’t see the gorilla. Their mental workload was maxed out while counting the number of passes and there wasn’t enough cognitive resources to notice anything else.

The Expectation Theory says that when we expect certain events to happen, we block out other possibilities (thus causing Inattentional Blindness). If we’re tasked with counting the number of basketball passes, the idea of a man in a gorilla suit strolling across a screen might not even register as a possible scenario (well, unless we’re at a Phoenix Suns game). Our expectation of “normal” can cause us to block out other possibilities.

Learning about Inattentional Blindness has caused me to reflect on all the things I’ve missed that have been right in front of me. For example:

🦍 I’ve walked past my neighbors front steps hundreds of times before — so I didn’t notice and enjoy the new plants decorating her stoop.

🦍 I’ve been so focused on working through a tough work problem with a specific solution that I missed an obvious (and simple) fix.

🦍 I’ve had expectations about how life was “supposed” to unfold that have limited other potential outcomes from turning into reality.

I know it’s impossible to avoid every Invisible Gorilla — but I find it helpful to know they’re out there…lurking in everyday life. When I’m narrow-mindedly focused on a single task, or thinking I know all possible outcomes, I try to take a step back and find that pesky gorilla.

Where are your Invisible Gorillas? How can you bring them into focus?

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