In 2004 Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris received the Ig Nobel Prize in Psychology, awarded for “achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think,” for the experiment that was the inspiration for their popular book, The Invisible Gorilla, and website.
Daniel Simons is a Professor in the Department of Psychology and the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois. His research focuses on the limits of human perception, memory, and awareness, and he is best known for his research showing that people are far less aware of their visual surroundings than they think.
We recently sat down with Simons to talk about his current work.
In celebration of the June 7th release of the paperback edition of The Invisible Gorilla you guys are starting a charity campaign. Please explain.
Our goal is to give back to the community while also promoting our book. Most of the charities we have selected for the campaign are devoted to science, education, safety, or other themes we discuss in our book. We hope that the campaign will have a positive impact on the charities we’ve selected since most are relatively small and any donations help.
Here’s how it works: If you pre-order or purchase the paperback edition of The Invisible Gorilla on or before June 11, 2011, we will jointly donate $5 to the charity you choose. The charity selected most often at the end of the promotion will receive an additional $2000 donation, and we will donate up to a total of $25,000. We though it would be a good way for people to get an inexpensive copy of our book (the paperback sells for about $10 online) while also helping to support a charity that they like. We’ve made it easy to participate as well: http://www.theinvisiblegorilla.com/charity.html.
(If you pre-order the book, you can also participate in our gorilla suit giveaway! http://www.theinvisiblegorilla.com/gorillapromo.html)
What is the causal illusion, and why is it so prevalent?
The illusion of cause is one of the everyday illusions we discuss in The Invisible Gorilla. When we experience two events, one after the other, and the first plausibly could have caused the second, we tend to assume that it did. Our minds are fantastic pattern detectors, but at times they can be overzealous, detecting patterns where none exist. And, when we see a pattern (real or not) that needs an explanation, we tend to infer that some prior event must have caused that outcome. This tendency to seek causes after the fact is problematic because many factors can lead to the same outcome.
For example, it is a mistake to look at a successful company and assume that their success must have resulted from their business plan. It might have. Or, they might just have been lucky. Or, they might have succeeded in spite of their business plan, because of other factors that weren’t obvious at the time. The illusion of cause also helps to explain why people were so ready to assume that vaccines caused autism despite the dearth of evidence that the two are even associated. One comes before the other, and we seek causes notable outcomes, especially for outcomes that are significant in our lives.
How do you define rationality? Is rationality malleable?
That’s a fairly broad question. Philosophers have been struggling with the nature of rationality for 1000s of years. Although we don’t address the topic directly in the book, we present a contrast between rational, deliberate thought and gut judgments, particularly when reasoning about the mind. Our argument is that our intuitive, gut judgments about how our own minds work tends to be flawed, leading to everyday illusions. In contrast, rational analysis can often provide insights into our limitations and abilities, helping to counter some of the biases we have about our minds. Both intuitions and rational deliberation are based on our experiences, but rational judgment allows us to evaluate those experiences to see what we’re missing. The scientific method is premised on such deliberate analysis, and we think it works well to apply the same sorts of tools when trying to understand how our own minds work.
Stay tuned for part two where Simons answers:
Assuming you can name only one, what is one of the most popular myths associated with attention? How about one for memory?
Are there specific groups of people more prone to experience cognitive illusions? Can we learn to avoid or at least minimize these illusions?
In addition to these, Simons answers more questions in part two of our interview.
Photo by Javier Kohen, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.