You Have No Idea What You Are Overlooking
Illusion of Attention
After heavy rains in the south of England, a river in a small village overflowed its banks. The police closed the ford, the shallow part of the river where vehicles cross, and diverted traffic. The crossing stayed closed for two weeks, but each day at least one car drove past the warning sign and into the rushing water. The drivers were so focused on their car’s navigation systems that they didn’t notice what was right in front of them.
In the 1990s, Harvard psychologists Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris filmed two teams of students passing basketballs back and forth. One team wore black T-shirts, the other, white. The short clip, “The Monkey Business Illusion,” is available on YouTube. (Take a look before reading on.) In the video, viewers are asked to count how many times the players in white T-shirts pass the ball. Both teams move in circles, weaving in and out, passing back and forth. Suddenly, in the middle of the video, something bizarre happens: A student dressed as a gorilla walks into the center of the room, pounds his chest, and promptly disappears again. At the end, you are asked if you noticed anything unusual. Half the viewers shake their heads in astonishment. Gorilla? What gorilla?
The monkey business test is considered one of the most famous experiments in psychology and demonstrates the so-called illusion of attention: We are confident that we notice everything that takes place in front of us. But in reality, we often see only what we are focusing on—in this case, the passes made by the team in white. Unexpected, unnoticed interruptions can be as large and conspicuous as a gorilla.
The illusion of attention can be precarious, for example, when making a phone call while driving. Most of the time doing so poses no problems. The call does not negatively influence the straightforward task of keeping the car in the middle of the lane and braking when a car in front does. But as soon as an unanticipated event takes place, such as a child running across the street, your attention is too stretched to react in time. Studies show that drivers’ reactions are equally slow when using a cell phone as when under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Furthermore, it does not matter whether you hold the phone with one hand, jam it between your shoulder and jaw, or use a hands-free kit: Your responsiveness to unexpected events is still compromised.
Perhaps you know the expression “the elephant in the room.” It refers to an obvious subject that nobody wants to discuss, a kind of taboo. In contrast, let us define what “the gorilla in the room” is: a topic that is of the utmost importance and urgency, and that we absolutely need to address, but nobody knows about it.
Take the case of Swissair, a company that was so fixated on expansion that it overlooked its evaporating liquidity and went bankrupt in 2001. Or the mismanagement in the Eastern bloc that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Or the risks on banks’ books that up until 2007 nobody paid any attention to. Such gorillas stomp around right in front of us—and we barely spot them.
It’s not the case that we miss every extraordinary event. The crux of the matter is that whatever we fail to notice remains unheeded. Therefore, we have no idea what we are overlooking. This is exactly why we still cling to the dangerous illusion that we perceive everything of importance.
Purge yourself of the illusion of attention every now and then. Confront all possible and seemingly impossible scenarios. What unexpected events might happen? What lurks beside and behind the burning issues? What is no one addressing? Pay attention to silences as much as you respond to noises. Check the periphery, not just the center. Think the unthinkable. Something unusual can be huge; we still may not see it. Being big and distinctive is not enough to be seen. The unusual and huge thing must be expected.