Open Book

Misstating the Obvious

The Pitfalls of Doing What Comes Naturally

Magazine Issue
January/February 2011
Misstating the Obvious

The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us
By Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons
Crown. 306 pp.
ISBN: 9780307459657

On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind’s Hard-Wired Habits
By Wray Herbert
Crown. 289 pp.
ISBN: 9780307461636

With his lively bestseller Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, author Malcolm Gladwell crystallized the extraordinary influence wielded by the intuitive mind and our mysterious, under-the-radar mental mechanisms. Even if his book contained little headline news for professionals who work every day with the stuff of the unconscious, his engaging explanations for why trusting your gut can sometimes lead to a better decision than careful, logical reasoning seemed to resonate broadly. His work has become a touchstone for a larger cultural interest in intuitive thought, as evidenced by a whole bookshelf of works since published on the subject.

Two new books in the post-Blink genre, The Invisible Gorilla, by cognitive psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, and On Second Thought, by science and psychology writer Wray Herbert, are particularly worthy of attention. Although their real strengths lie in their solid reporting on the state of the intuitive mind as currently understood by cognitive researchers, they’re correctives to the overly positive view of the benefits of going with your gut that many readers took away from Blink. Providing nuanced explanations of why our intuitions frequently lead us astray and the causes of faulty thinking patterns, they can be used as sophisticated self-help guides for the psychologically minded.

Both books help us understand why we’re so captivated by the notion of gut instinct. Partly, it’s because of the increasingly influential field of behavioral economics, which explores the many ways in which intuition can trump reason in the marketplace, and is particularly appealing in a bullish stock market. Additionally, in an era when outside dangers seem to lurk everywhere, it’s comforting to remember that nature seems to have equipped us with marvelous unconscious thinking mechanisms to protect and guide us.

That’s, in fact, one of the underlying themes of Herbert’s On Second Thought. He points to evolution to explain our all too frequent reliance on quick intuitive judgments, and why they sometimes will pan out, and sometimes not. How do you decide, for instance, whether the nearby park is safe? In prehistoric times, with predators and other dangers lurking everywhere, the ability to quickly and successfully size up the risk that a saber-tooth tiger would attack was essential for survival. “The primitive brain wired itself for action, including the ability to make very rapid choices and judgments,” Herbert writes. And today? Even with no saber-tooth tiger around to attack, “Many of these powerful, evolved tendencies remain in the modern mind . . . as potent as ever, though many are no longer adaptive to our current way of life—and lead to faulty thinking.” So, even as you stroll through the park in daylight, you might jump when you hear loud growling that turns out to be just a pair of miniature dogs. Yet, having gotten used to people walking their noisy dogs, you might fail to pay attention to the fact that these are unleashed pitbulls heading your way.

If there’s a way to learn how to differentiate between impulses and behavior patterns that remain useful and those that have become maladaptive, Herbert believes it lies in the cognitive psychology field called heuristics. “Heuristics are cognitive rules of thumb, hard-wired mental shortcuts that everyone uses every day in routine decision making and judgment,” he explains. “The study of heuristics is one of the most robust areas of scientific research today, producing hundreds of academic articles a year, yet the concept is little known outside the labs and offices of academia.”

One reason for that might be that the word has a jargony feel to it. Another might be that, in their basic form, they seem to boil down to something common sense should warn us about. Well, these are rules of thumb, after all—and that’s the very reason why, when we coast along on default mode, they can trip us up with ease. That’s why Herbert advocates a new default mode to aspire to—one that comprises a far stronger awareness of their power to influence and derail our logic. Indeed, precisely because our automatic minds work by categorizing and simplifying, the way to override such over-simplifications, he asserts, is to train ourselves to identify and take a second look at shortcuts that are likeliest to lead us astray. The practical application of heuristics has a lot in common with cognitive therapy; the aim, in both cases, is to learn to tune in and decipher our brain chatter, then use that new consciousness to adapt and reprogram our unconscious scripts—including those ruled by our gut instincts—as needed.

Herbert writes in depth about 20 of the most prevalent heuristics and the familiar situations in which they’re most likely to sidetrack rational analysis. A sampling: When smooth rhetoric causes us to overlook inconsistencies in what the speaker is saying, we’re falling for the “fluency heuristic,” which equates fluency with knowledge and reliability—and, if we’re not careful, we’re being taken in by a con artist. If you think a “two for one” sale is a better deal than “half off,” then you’ve just been played by the “arithmetic heuristic,” which equates a higher number with greater value—as well as by a savvy marketing department. The “caricature heuristic,” which allows us to extrapolate the whole from details—sometimes leading to racial stereotypes and prejudice—can be particularly problematic. The “cootie heuristic,” which connects human contact with the transmission of invisible particles, dealing as it does with heightened and irrational fear of contagion, helps explain the bias and stigma many people still attach to anyone living with HIV or AIDS.

Herbert backs up the existence and workings of each heuristic with what can seem like long litanies of scientific studies. But he makes a compelling case for learning to label our heuristic distortions. By viewing our faulty thought patterns through that lens, Herbert says, we can begin to hone new skills for detecting and evaluating them to reframe and redirect our conscious minds along more logical, and more productive, lines. That way, instead of falling for an ad campaign, whether for a financial service or a politician, you’ll know to do your due diligence and research the facts.

The Invisible Gorilla takes its title from a famous experiment conducted by authors Chabris and Simons and described in their 1999 research paper wittily titled, “Gorillas in Our Midst.” At first glance, the experiment seems like a stunt. The psychologists made a 60-second tape of two teams, one dressed in white shirts and the other in black shirts, passing basketballs in a gymnasium. They then asked test subjects to count the number of passes made by each team.

It sounds simple; all you have to do is concentrate, and you’ll get the right answer. But that was the catch—about half the viewers concentrated so hard on counting the passes that they ­didn’t notice that halfway through the video, a woman wearing a full-body gorilla suit walked on and thumped her chest in full view of the camera. Numerous repetitions all resulted in the same statistic: about half the people just didn’t “see” the gorilla. Why? Because they didn’t expect to see it; their attention was focused on counting the passes.

The experiment is a memorable way to demonstrate the disconnection between how much of the world we think we accurately perceive and what we actually do perceive. It also points up the major theme of the book: the ease with which our intuitive assumptions can deceive us. These errors in automatic thinking sound a lot like what Herbert calls heuristics, though Chabris and Simons never use that word, preferring instead to call these false intuitive thought patterns “everyday illusions” that have the power to influence our behavior, often negatively.

The authors identify six such illusions. The first is our overestimation of our powers of attention. Not seeing the gorilla is just one example of what they describe as “mental blindness.” It’s a cognitive limitation that becomes potentially fatal when we talk on a cell phone while driving, thinking that we’re still paying enough attention to the road ahead even as an “unseen” vehicle plows into us. Next, the authors describe the illusion of memory, which most commonly comes into play when we assume the factual basis of eyewitness accounts. Too many studies (and court cases) prove the elusive, selective, fast-fading and, at times, self-serving nature of memory to put full trust in any single self-report. Instead, “Just as the gorilla experiment showed that people see what they expect to see, people often remember what they expect to remember. They make sense of a scene, and that interpretation colors—or even determines—what they remember about it.” As a result, the authors conclude, “What is stored in memory is not an exact replica of reality, but a re-creation of it”—one that can be deeply flawed.

The illusion that confidence is a marker of true ability is tested every time we pick a team leader because of the person’s self-assurance, rather than his or her proven track record. Other illusions stem from our tendency to overestimate the extent of our knowledge or our desire to perceive patterns and causes even when none exist.

On Second Thought and The Invisible Gorilla cover similar ground. What one book labels heuristics can sound a lot like the other book’s illusions, and both stress that no one is immune to the pitfalls of overreliance on intuition. But their emphases also differ. Herbert is intent on making a case that heuristics is a field of study that’s so important even non academics should know about it. Chabris and Simons concentrate on the negative consequences in public and private life of jumping to conclusions based only on our gut feelings. Ultimately, gullibility, oversimplification, and a general tendency to miss seemingly obvious clues may simply be part of the cost of being human, both books conclude. But if you slow down and take a moment to think, even after you blink, the price tag won’t be nearly as high.

Diane Cole

Diane Cole is the author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges and writes for The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.