A slew of new reviews, coming right at you

This week, for the first time, Chris and I have been compared to sorcerers. Below, you can read why and see some other highlights from a slew of great new reviews of The Invisible Gorilla out this week.

Mark Changizi, reviewing our book at Psychology Today, calls us sorcerers (in a good way).

A couple reviews (here and here) lauded our use of both anecdotes and science to explain how the mind works in an accessible and engaging way.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted that our easy-to-understand book might lead to better driving while also derailing ponzi schemes. (presumably not at the same time — people aren’t so good at multitasking…)

The reviewer for New Scientist is confident that the book changed his life (although he correctly acknowledges that his belief might be based on an illusion of confidence.)

The reviewer for the Free Lance-Star in Fredricksburg Virginia said that if his college textbooks read like our book, he wouldn’t have sought solace in the novels of Sydney Sheldon and Stephen King. We hope our book isn’t quite as scary as a King novel.

The Scientific American 60-second podcast quoted one of my own idols for science communication, Richard Feynman, who aptly described the theme of our book, “The first principle is you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Invisible Gorilla Tweets on 2010-06-30

  • WSJ on texting while driving: http://bit.ly/bXKbtl. But anonymous "researchers" who think phones aren't distracting?! #
  • Real cause: more pertussis in states that make it easy to opt out of vaccines. http://bit.ly/c4ewIz #
  • Pertussis epidemic deaths in CA. No herd immunity. False causal beliefs partly to blame. http://bit.ly/bkhvlI #

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Invisible Gorilla Tweets on 2010-06-29

  • Discoverer of the "Mozart Effect" now acknowledges that it's due to enjoyment, not Mozart: http://n.pr/briMJ7 #
  • Don't Drive and Dial — Facebook campaign against distracted driving: http://bit.ly/dcJ7wq #

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Invisible Gorilla Tweets on 2010-06-28

  • Dan's interview with Moira Gunn for the NPR's Tech Nation is now available online. The interview was originally… http://fb.me/DjVMrseZ #

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unexpected bicycles and inattentional blindness

This article reports a tragic accident that happened on Sunday. A bicyclist was hit by a car and killed. Unfortunately, such accidents are far too common, and this particular example typifies how inattentional blindness operates in the real world.

Most people believe that unexpected or unusual events draw attention, perhaps even more than typical events. Why? In part, the belief is based on our experiences. When, on occasion, we happen to notice something unusual or unexpected, that event is remarkable. We take mental note of it and remember it. When we notice a typical or expected event, that’s unremarkable. Critically, we are, by definition, unaware of any events we don’t notice. If we fail to notice unexpected events more than expected ones, we won’t be aware of those probabilities. So, when intuitively judging how likely we are to notice events, we tend to think we notice unexpected ones more because htose are the ones we remember, and we lack the information to calculate the relative rates of noticing for expected and unexpected events.

As best we can tell from the existing data, people are more likely to notice events that are consistent with our expectations. For example, pedestrians and bicyclists are less likely to be hit by cars in towns where there are more pedestrians and bicyclists. We discuss this topic in The Invisible Gorilla, and Tom Vanderbilt covers it beautifully in his book Traffic.

So what happened in this case? A 42 year old bicyclist was riding down Highway 18 in the Town of Summit (in Wisconsin) when he was struck from behind by a 20 year old driver. According to the article, police are still investigating why the driver didn’t see the cyclist, but Officer Dana Hazelton noted that bicyclists rarely ride on the highway because “There’s actually a bicycle trail that’s just south of Highway 18 that’s probably 20 feet off the road that’s made for bicyclists.” In other words, people don’t expect to see bicyclists riding on the side of the highway, so they are less likely to notice them.

The same problem explains why drivers often fail to yield to motorcyclists when turning left — motorcycles are less common than cars, so drivers are less likely to see them, and occasionally look right at them without noticing.

Chest thump to Vicki McKenna for forwarding the link to the news story.

upcoming events and media coverage

Chris and I will be busy this week doing radio interviews and book signings. Here’s some of the upcoming coverage. If you’re in St. Louis, I hope to see you at a book signing on Wednesday evening at Left Bank Books (see below):

June 21 – Dan interviewed on “John Brown’s Mindset” on KTRS radio in St. Louis (2:40pm central)

June 22 – Dan interviewed on Radio Free Europe (9:30am) — may air at a later date

June 22 – Dan interviewed on “St. Louis on the Air” by Don Marsh on KWMU radio (NPR) (11am central)

June 22 – Chris interviewed on “The Gabriel Wisdom Show” on The Business Talk Radio Network (7pm eastern)

June 23 – Dan interviewed on “The McGraw Millhaven Show” on KTRS radio in St. Louis (9am central)

June 23 – Chris interviewed by “Don Weeks and the Morning Team on WGY-AM (9:30am eastern)

June 23 – Dan will be doing a brief talk and book signing at Left Bank Books (central west end store) in St. Louis from 7-9pm. Open to the public.

June 24 – Chris will be interviewed on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) at 12pm eastern.

June 25 – watch for the new issue of Kiplinger’s Personal Finance. Bob Frick writes about his interview with us for his “Your Mind and Your Money” series.

June 26 – watch for the new issue of New Scientist magazine that will include a Q&A with us as well as a review of “The Invisible Gorilla.”

Seeing faces in inanimate objects

Huffington Post has a cool photo gallery of faces appearing in embedded objects. This tendency to see patterns, especially faces, is something we are particularly good at doing. It’s also the basis for this wonderful American Express advertisement:

Unfortunately, our pattern detection mechanisms can be overly zealous at times, leading us to see patterns that don’t actually exist. As we discuss in The Invisible Gorilla, the tendency to see patterns and meaning in what is actually noise contributes to beliefs in false causes and conspiracy theories. We tend to see in the noise the patterns we expect to see, and these patterns tend to confirm our expectations and beliefs. More importantly, as Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, and others have shown, we tend to look for confirming evidence rather than disconfirming evidence. That leads us to accumulate anecdotes and examples that fit the pattern without taking into account the cases that disconfirm the pattern.

change blindness and courtroom testimony

A friend referred me to a wonderful case of a lawyer taking advantage of the limits of memory to try to get his client out of a traffic violation. It’s almost hard to believe this actually happened — it’s easier to imagine it happening on a television show as a critical plot twist. After all, such shows use a lot of “creative” license and regularly depart from what happens in actual court cases.

The lawyer, Roger Christianson, was representing his client, Jerry Bordeaux, who had been accused of a traffic violation. Traffic courts often are a madhouse, with large numbers of defendants appearing the same day, and trials proceeding one after the other. In many cases, the police officer who made the arrest takes the stand to identify the accused and to describe the violation. Mr. Christianson apparently realized that cops might sometimes think they can identify the accused even if they don’t actually remember what happened. That is, he was aware of the illusion of memory.

When the judge called Jerry Bordreaux’s name to start the trial, Mr. Christianson approached the bench instead. The judge thought that he was Bordreaux and treated him as if he were the accused rather than the lawyer. When the case started, the sole witness was Officer Coronado, who had ticketed Bordreaux. While Officer Coronado was on the stand, Mr. Christianson asked him:

“And what was I wearing?”
“Had I cut off my beard that day?”
“Was I wearing a beard that day?”
“I am the driver?”

After Officer Coronado identified Mr. Christianson as the person he had ticketed that day, Mr. Christianson revealed that he was actually the lawyer! What a brilliant ploy — if Officer Coronado couldn’t even remember which person he had ticketed, how could he be certain of what Mr. Bordreaux had done. By switching places with his client, Mr. Christianson impeached the reliability of Officer Coronado’s memory.

Unfortunately for Mr. Christianson, lawyers are not permitted to mislead the court. For pulling this stunt, Mr. Christianson eventually lost his license to practice law in California. It’s too bad that his stunt, however inappropriate in an actual case, didn’t have the effect of inspiring a reform to the court system. His approach might have been wrong, but he gave one of the most dramatic demonstrations I’ve seen of how easily people can be convicted based on flawed testimony. Just visit The Innocence Project to read many other cases in which people have been falsely convicted and occasionally given a death sentence on the basis of flawed eyewitness testimony.

Some of my own research with Daniel Levin shows that people often fail to notice when we switched the person they were talking to in the middle of a conversation, and they often have poor memory for the changed person just moments later. If we can’t remember who we were talking to a moment ago, how accurate are we likely to be when we try to remember something that happened days, weeks, months, or even years earlier.

The details of the case are drawn from the publicly posted opinion in Mr. Christianson’s disciplinary hearing and from the final decision in his disciplinary case. The information was available at http://members.calbar.ca.gov/search/member_detail.aspx?x=54993.

Levin DT, Simons DJ, Angelone BL, & Chabris CF (2002). Memory for centrally attended changing objects in an incidental real-world change detection paradigm. British journal of psychology (London, England : 1953), 93 (Pt 3), 289-302 PMID: 12230832

Simons, D. J., & Levin, D. T. (1998). Failure to detect changes to people during a real-world interaction Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 5, 644-649

Latest Reviews and Coverage

It has been a great week for coverage of our book in the media. On Friday we received a long review in the Wall Street Journal’s Weekend section, complete with a clever graphic that shows how hard it can be to see the forest for the trees. Also on Friday, Steven Pinker cited The Invisible Gorilla in “Mind Over Mass Media,” a New York Times op-ed arguing that new forms of media, new computer tools, and new sources of distraction are not “changing our brains” or making us stupid. Pinker notes that our book demonstrates that products touted to broadly and effortlessly change how our brains work never turn out to have such effects. (Mozart’s music doesn’t make kids smarter, brain-training games don’t reverse cognitive aging, and so on.)

Earlier in the week, Russell Poldrack mentioned the book in his contribution to a debate on the dangers of proliferating information technologies at the New York Times website. Russ points out that our intuitions about how well we can multitask are notoriously poor: many people think they can do it just fine, but only a tiny fraction actually can.

Yesterday, Brian Vaszily posted an extensive blog entry at IntenseExperiences.com with several video snippets from his interview of Dan. And R.T. Carroll wrote a very long and thoughtful review at the Skeptic’s Dictionary.

Thanks to everyone for reading our book and writing about it!

back to science blogging

Most of our blog posts lately have been related to the release of The Invisible Gorilla, and our traveling for book promotion has kept me from doing more science-oriented blogging. (Chris will soon be posting some links to new reviews, interviews, and other writing we’ve done.) Although we still have a lot of traveling coming up, I’m hoping to be able to do a bit more substantive science blogging now that the most intense wave of traveling is done. Of course we’ll still be posting regular updates of cool news about our book, but we’ll have more science posts shortly.