Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us

The Invisible Gorilla is based on the popular "gorilla" experiment. People were asked to count passes in a video of basketball players. In the middle of the video a person in a gorilla suit walks across the screen, and even stares at the screen and does a chest beating. Surprisingly, half the people that watched the video did not notice the gorilla.

The book builds on this to narrate some of the ways that our minds fool us. Many additional anecdotes are given to further illustrate the gorilla principle. A submarine captain looked out at a periscope before surfacing, however, he did not see the large Japanese fishing vessel sitting there. A cop ran right by another cop getting beaten, but claims not to have seen him. Drivers often claim not to see motorcyclists despite starting directly at them. In these cases, the people may have actually stared directly at the event in question. However, their brain never processed these "unusual" events.

There are other areas where are assumptions of memory deceive us. In criminal cases, we give a lot of credit to eye-witnesses. However, these accounts can be very inaccurate. Our brains are built to process some known stimuli. We are not accustomed to look for things we are not expecting. Even a few minutes after an unusual event, we may recall them differently. We also assume people are lying when they seem to recall things differently. However, it is often just the memory being its innacurate self. (An anecdote was given on the Bobby Knight joking incident. The two parties had very different stories of the incident. The coach had done somewhat similar things many times before and did not think much of it. It was just a minor push. The player had not experienced it before and feared for his life in the intense choking. When the video was shown, the actual story was somewhere in between. However, still agreed with their "memory")

Doctors are trained to look for particular irregularities. Part of their skill is in filtering out abnormalities that are not important. This skill can often lead them to ignore unusual irregularities (such as a guiding wire that has never been removed.)

Alas, people often think they are better at doing things than they actually are. Drivers never get in accidents and thus feel confident. They feel they are skilled enough to talk on a cell phone while driving. However, studies have shown that this is more dangerous than driving while drunk. Drivers feel confident because they can easily carry out basic driving tasks. However, in a distracted state, they are unable to respond well to unusual situations. Since these unusual situations are rare, the drivers get a false sense of security. However, incredibly bad things could when a rare event would occur. (In spite of what phone companies would like you to believe, it is the act of talking on a cell phone that is the problem, not holding a phone. Talking with a passenger does not create the same problem, in part because the passenger shares the same physical environment. They can adjust the conversation in more challenging driving conditions. They also tend to be easier to understand than somebody speaking through a phone.)

There are other areas where people's intuition often leads them down the wrong path. People will often prefer a confident person over somebody with more expertise (but less confidence.) People are less likely to trust a doctor who consults a reference book - even though this is likely to improve their level of care. (People even tend to trust a doctor in a lab coat more than one without.) People also often falsely link causation with temporal relation. Signs of autism typically start to be manifest at the same age when children get measles vaccinations. This lead many to assume that vaccinations caused autism. (Even though there was not even a significant correlation between the two.) People can also employ selective memory, associating a particular substance or activity with improved well being (even ignoring cases of improved well-being without the "cure").

Laws can be especially prone to bad "intuition." (For example, we get hands-free cell-phone laws because it "seems" obvious that the act of holding a phone to one's ears is what makes driving while phoning bad. It seems that driving while talking is not a problem, even though it is. Some laws are often seen as beneficial if the desired results are produced. However, the results may have been produced otherwise. On the Simpsons, Springfield had no bear sightings after an expensive bear patrol was put in place. However, they wouldn't have had them if one wasn't in place.)

Memories themselves can be inaccurate. We may honestly conflate different memories from the pass. We could even honestly adopt other people's memories as our own without even realizing it. Even "flashbulb memories" (such as "Where were you on 9/11) change over time. We may think we remember something accurately, but if we write it down at long intervals, we may find different memories. Our mind tends to be selective in what it remembers. In one experiment, somebody stopped subjects for directions. Some workers then walked with a large object between the subject and the direction-asker. While this was occurring, the asker was replaced with a different person. Most subjects kept right on going without realizing there was a change.

People also tend to look for the miracle cure or the easy solution. However, this can lead to a failure to ask why. One study showed a relationship between listening to mozart and increased cognitive ability. The press ran with this, and companies sprouted up, even providing classical music to babies in the womb. However, the studies were done only with adults, without even any thought given to infants. Furthermore, other studies showed that listening to popular musical helped as well or better than classical music. It wasn't so much the music as the active relaxation. But alas, that is not as popular as a "quick fix."

There are many examples given of cases where intuition fails. People tend to overestimate their mental abilities and their memory. At times, this intuition apparently leads to success, further giving confidence in the ability. However, it can also lead to massive failure. The book stresses the importance of controlled experiments as the gold standard for accurate results. It does not dismiss intuition outright. It can at times be a useful tool. Instead it stresses the importance of knowing the limitations. Miracle cures are a rarity. What works for one company may not work for another. By acknowledging our weaknesses, we can minimize risk and use our intuition for our maximum benefit.

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