Deceiving Ourselves via Selective Attention?

Posted by M ws On Wednesday, July 25, 2012 0 comments
According to wiseGEEK:

The issue of why people pay attention, how much they do and to what is often more referred to as selective attention. In any busy scene, be it a classroom or a freeway, it’s virtually impossible to note everything at once. What a person pays attention to in these circumstances is what they select to pay attention to, though it may be noted that selection is not necessarily conscious. Selected attention can then be viewed as the process by which people find something upon which to concentrate, and the level of concentration they can continue to exert as distractions arise.


There are many theories as to why people select certain things or why they have varying levels of selective attention. Some believe that the memory or the working attentional state can only hold so much at a time; so people filter out what they deem unnecessary or unimportant, usually without being aware of the filtering process. A number of theories have linked the study of attention to the senses and to the idea of how these arouse focus decisions in humans, and others believe neural function is very much involved. For instance, if two people call someone else at the same time, to whom will that person respond? Possibly, people are already attuned to respond to a more familiar voice, a louder voice, or a voice of a certain pitch, and so they’ll automatically select which person gets the response, and they may not even realize another person has also called them.


Degree of selective attention may vary depending on people, and some people have low attentional levels, particularly if they have certain learning disorders. Conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can make it challenging for students to stay appropriately focused and any distractions may make a student lose focus. It’s hard for the ADHD child to remain in touch with a single thing, though at times they can also exhibit hyper focus. CLICK HERE FOR MORE.

In 1999, two neuroscientists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simmons conducted a simple experiment with students in a psychology course they were teaching at Harvard University. One of the best-known experiments in psychology, it appears in text books and is taught in introductory psychology courses throughout the world. Not only has it been featured in magazines such as Newsweek and The New Yorker, it has also been aired in television programs such as Dateline NBC. The Exploratorium in San Francisco and other museums have also showcased this clip which humourously reveals something about how we see and don't see in our world. They went on to write “The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us” which highlights several critical shortcomings of our brain.



“The Invisible Gorilla” examines six everyday illusions that profoundly influence our lives namely illusions of:

  • attention
  • memory
  • confidence
  • knowledge
  • cause and potential.

According to the two neuroscientists, these illusions represent distorted beliefs we hold in our minds that are “not just wrong, but wrong in dangerous ways.”

Watch the following clip. Follow the instructions carefully.


The clip illustrates the first illusion : attention.  We think we pay attention to much more of the world around us than we actually do. Focused on a specific task (counting the number of bounced passes) just as many don’t spot the gorilla that strolls leisurely into the scene, we may miss certain important aspects of life/information.

Often, we think we see more than we actually do (illusion #1). We may even overrate our abilities to recall what we have seen (illusion #2). Also, we constantly overestimate our own qualities and abilities (illusion #3).

These illusions explain a lot of otherwise inexplicable human behavior. For instance, three witnesses of a robbery may very different versions of what happened. We may sometimes even “recall” events that never actually occurred.

Sometimes, we may hold on to distorted beliefs that both wrong and dangerous. Here's an extract from The Invisible Gorilla:

What we intuitively accept and believe is derived from what we collectively assume and understand, and intuition influences our decisions automatically and without reflection. Intuition tells us that we pay attention to more than we do, that our memories are more detailed and robust than they are, that confident people are competent people, that we know more than we really do, that coincidences and correlations demonstrate causation, and that our brains have vast reserves of power that are easy to unlock. But in all of these cases, our intuitions are wrong, and they can cost us our fortunes, our health, and even our lives if we follow them blindly...

“You can make better decisions, and maybe even live a better life, if you do your best to look for the invisible gorillas in the world around you.” 

There may be important things right in front of you that you are noticing due to the illusion of attention. Now that you know about this illusion, you will be less apt to assume you're seeing everything there is to see. You may think you remember some things much better than you really do, because of the illusion of memory. Now that you understand the solution, you'll trust your own memory, and that of others, a bit less, and you'll try to corroborate your memory in important situations. You'll recognize that the confidence people express often reflect their personalities rather than their knowledge, memory, or abilities. You'll be wary of thinking you know more about a topic than you really do, and you will test your own understanding before mistaking familiarity for knowledge. You won't think you know the cause of something when all you really know is what happened before it or what tended to accompany it. You'll be skeptical of claims that simple tricks can unleash the untapped potential of your mind, but you'll be aware that you can develop phenomenal levels of expertise if you study and practice the right way.

I came across this book when checking out YouTube videos. When I asked my younger boy to watch the video, he laughed and said he saw it many years ago and told me that I am behind time. :-(

How many passes did you count? Did you see the gorilla? Do share your views/experiences and observations. I hope that as the next GE draws nigh, we will really be vigilant and pay attention and remember all important details. Have a nice day!

CLICK HERE to read more of Dan Simons' views on The Invisible Gorilla – The Illusions Of Attention, Memory, Confidence, Knowledge & Potential.


CLICK HERE to read Dr Doug Green's Summary of The Invisible Gorilla.


CLICK HERE to read David A. Shaywitz's excellent review of The Invisible Gorilla that was published in WSJ.


CLICK HERE to go the official site of The Invisible Gorilla.

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