on noticing and the fallacy of obviousness

Let’s get the spoiler alert out of the way.

You know that visual attention experiment? The one where you’re told to count the number of times the people in the white shirts pass a basketball back and forth?

You almost certainly do, if you’re a typical Maven Game reader, but just in case, don’t read any further and go take it now.

Did you take it?

Are we all the on same page here?

You know, about the twist?

OK, I think I’ve created enough of a buffer zone. I want to talk about the gorilla.

The gorilla effect is real. A little while back, Stephen Shapiro—author, magic fan, and all-around good dude—gave me a ticket to Derren Brown’s new show, Secret. At the top of the evening, Derren warned us that a man in a gorilla suit would wander on-stage at some point and that we, the audience, wouldn’t notice it.

This was a small theater, by the way. 199 seats. And yet, the gorilla got past us. Twice.

Sure, Derren was up to all kinds of distracting show business at each point, but still, this was fifteen feet in front of my face and I had no clue.

So the gorilla effect is real and it’s powerful. But maybe we’re taking the wrong lesson—that people are “blind to the obvious”—from it.

At Aeon, Teppo Felin, a professor at the University of Oxford’s business school, writes:

Imagine you were asked to watch the clip again, but this time without receiving any instructions. After watching the clip, imagine you were then asked to report what you observed. You might report that you saw two teams passing a basketball. You are very likely to have observed the gorilla. But having noticed these things, you are unlikely to have simultaneously recorded any number of other things. The clip features a large number of other obvious things that one could potentially pay attention to and report: the total number of basketball passes, the overall gender or racial composition of the individuals passing the ball, the number of steps taken by the participants…

In short, the list of obvious things in the gorilla clip is extremely long. And that’s the problem: we might call it the fallacy of obviousness. There’s a fallacy of obviousness because all kinds of things are readily evident in the clip. But missing any one of these things isn’t a basis for saying that humans are blind. The experiment is set up in such a way that people miss the gorilla because they are distracted by counting basketball passes. Preoccupied with the task of counting, missing the gorilla is hardly surprising. In retrospect, the gorilla is prominent and obvious.

This gets at so many interesting things for me that I could devote multiple weeks of the Maven Game to the power of noticing and the “fallacy of obviousness.”

For one, it brings to mind Richard Wiseman’s experiment demonstrating that people who think of themselves as lucky are much more likely to notice opportunities than the rest of us.

For another, it points toward why goals are so powerful even though they almost never feel like they’re working at the time.

When we set effective goals, we give our brains new marching orders. As a result, they get busy noticing different types of things, things relevant to our goals. This transforms our behavior and our results—but all below the level of our conscious awareness.

Felin continues:

Obviousness depends on what is deemed to be relevant for a particular question or task at hand. Rather than passively accounting for or recording everything directly in front of us, humans—and other organisms for that matter—instead actively look for things. The implication…is that mind-to-world processes drive perception rather than world-to-mind processes. The gorilla experiment itself can be reinterpreted to support this view of perception, showing that what we see depends on our expectations and questions—what we are looking for, what question we are trying to answer.

The fallacy is the idea that we all see the world “as it is,” noticing the “obvious” stuff most easily and noticing the “subtle” stuff less. Not true.

In reality, our mindset determines what we notice. Since I’ve been writing the Maven Game, my brain has increasingly tuned into things—ideas, articles, books—that fall under the rubric of the newsletter. If I were writing a newsletter about gorillas, I would start noticing all the gorilla stuff that goes on around me. It’s there. In fact, it’s obvious—to the writer of a gorilla newsletter.

This goes back to my belief that, one way or the other, you can’t really rush a book. Once you decide you’re going to write on a subject, your brain enters a different mode. You see the world differently—you see a different world—because you’re tuned in to what’s relevant to your book. Writing a book literally changes the world you experience.

What could be more valuable? And why would you rush through it?

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A short coda: I think I’ve talked about the idea in this essay before, in one form or another. I often get that sense when I hit send on a Maven Game, though I usually don’t skim the archives to confirm that sense of déjà vu.

Even though each Maven Game essay is written as its own thing, I can’t help but circle around the same few ideas over and over, filtering for the same stuff in the world because the same stuff interests me in the context of this newsletter.

Since the Maven Game is built up in chronologically ordered installments, this means that the ideas don’t accrete in any higher-order way, as they might were I using another set of constraints: A pop-up book. A magazine. A screenplay.

It goes back to what I wrote last week, about how we fall into the default settings, like reverse-chronological order for blogs, even if they aren’t ideal for the work at hand. Maven Game reader Jim Dillon nailed it for me in his response to my essay:

I still have a blog, but it’s been occurring to me that since my field of expertise (woodworking) is relatively static in terms of its raw materials, technology, and output, I cycle through a relatively small number of topics . . . but in an evolving way. Trips around a mountain in a slowly ascending corkscrew, yielding repeats of the same view with a slightly different perspective each time.

So reverse chronological is a huge impediment to sharing my stuff with my audience the way I experience it, and the way I’d like them to see it (whether through my eyes or theirs). And that’s just the most obvious way the template-driven world wide web frustrates me.

So the Maven Game, too, is a “slowly ascending corkscrew.” I’m not sure how I feel about that, but it’s accurate. Should it take another form? I’m not sure, but for now I’ll continue with the default settings.