In case you haven’t heard of the Invisible Gorilla short film… The authors of the film, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, also wrote a book with the same title. The film was a study tool. In the film, there are two teams, one wearing white shirts and the other black, passing basketball to each other within the team. In the study, the participants were asked to count the number of passes for only the white team. It’s a task demanding a high level of focus. Half way into the film, an actor in a gorilla suit came on the court, stared straight at the camera, and thumped her chest…for 9 seconds. Upon finishing the film and the task of counting the passes of the ball, the researchers asked participants: Did you see the gorilla?
Only half of the thousands of participants in the study saw the gorilla. The ones who missed it couldn’t believe that they would miss something so in-your-face obvious. As psychologist Daniel Kahneman, Nobel laureate of economics, states in his Thinking, Fast and Slow, “The gorilla study illustrates two important facts about our minds: we can be blind to the obvious, and we are also blind to our blindness.”
(The unanswered questions are: How accurately did the participants who noticed the gorilla count the passes? How did the accuracy of the counting compare between the ones who noticed the gorilla and those who didn’t see the gorilla?)
I am sure you have experienced many times in your life when you are deeply involved in a task, a conversation, a book, or any other activities, that you block out most noises from your environment. Kahneman in his Fast & Slow book introduces the principles underlying this phenomenon: system 1 and system 2 in our ways of thinking.
System 1 is based on our involuntary senses where we can operate instinctively, like driving in the “right” lane where Brits would drive in their “left” lane. Or, turning our heads toward a startled cry. Or, knowing 1×2 is 2 without a pause. If we live in generalities, system 1 would be terrific. However, when it comes to dealing with specifics, system 1 can be unreliable. For example, all women should be hysterical after being raped; so, one — even when she is your friend — who is calm or even giggling must be suspicious.
System 2 is based on our voluntary senses, once the reaction from system 1 requires more information. So, upon turning toward that startled cry, system 2 kicks in to assess if the source is in distress or is sounding a warning for others; if the former, we further evaluate to see if our assistance is called for, if the latter, we decide whether to run away from the danger or toward it to thwart the danger. Or, when you drive your hired car out of a garage while vacationing in UK, your system 2 kicks in to remind you to do it “right.” System 2 is about self-control, a way to check system 1.
For the most part, our system 1 allows us to go through our days fairly confidently with few hiccups. Yet, if we rarely check with system 2, we can let our biases dictate our emotions and behaviors. On the other hand, constantly checking minutiae with our system 2 results in hardly getting anything done. The trick, as always, lies in the how; how do we decide when to check with system 2? There is no 12-step program to guide us. However, as Kahneman says, “It is easier to recognize other people’s mistakes than our own,” so we keep learning. And hopefully, we can learn from others’ mistakes to shore up our system 1’s accuracy, increase our awareness, and better recognize when to invoke system 2 for better judgment.
What Peggy, Marie’s foster mother, did in the “Anatomy of Doubt” of This American Life – divulging her doubt to the detective of Marie’s rape case – was jumping to conclusion. As Kahneman explains, “Jumping to conclusion is efficient if the conclusions are likely to be correct and the costs of an occasional mistake acceptable…[It’s otherwise] risky when the situation is unfamiliar, the stakes are high, and there is no time to collect more information.” Uncertainty and doubt really belong to system 2, and that’s why I asserted in my last post, that when Peggy called the detective, she had already erased her doubt. And since system 1 is guided by experience, and further, since the detective working Marie’s case had had about two or three rape cases prior to Marie’s, his system 1 would be at infant stage on working with rape victims. As a result, he relied on Peggy’s knowing Marie well, and assumed Marie was being untruthful in her rape account.
When we attach our emotional response to the first impression, of a person or a situation, and interpret the subsequent evidence based on our first impression, we are committing to the “halo effect.” We are likely to consider someone we just met, who has a nice smile and soft voice, to be “kind and generous.” In job interviews, confirmed in social science studies, taller people are regarded to have more managerial potential than shorter people. And not surprisingly, extroverts get more positive reactions than introverts. In reality, none of these first impressions offer any valid clues to what a person is or is not.
We use halo effect on organizations as well. Eron was the darling…till it collapsed. Companies that have shown wide swings in performance still get high ratings on leadership, strategies, or execution if they established a good impression years ago, even though these very same companies have been using the same strategies, under the same leadership, and behaving pretty much the same over the years.
We are humans; we are fallible; we have biases; we have blind spots. We get it right most of the time, but we also get it wrong more often than we realize or are willing to admit. So, back to that “humility” that I often extol…
Labor Day weekend is coming up. I wish you a fantastic weekend, and please be safe if travel is involved. I’ll be back in this space after 9/11. Till then,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
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