The invisible gorilla effect.

The characters of this story, System 1 and System 2 are the two ways that our brains form thoughts.

System 1: fast, intuitive, subconscious. It allows us to know that if the traffic light is red we have to stop.

System 2: slow, rational, conscious. It allows us to calculate 34*97 and to drive in London – especially if you, like me, are from a right-hand driving country.

David Khaneman, Nobel Economics Prize in 2002, studied how these systems interact and developed some life-changing insights; one of them is that we have a limited “budget” of attention. We would find it extremely hard to calculate 34*97 while we turn left in the middle of a traffic jam in central London (it’s not even remotely advisable to try to do so).

This “attention budget” has funny consequences. Concentrating intensely on a difficult task makes us blind to factors that would normally catch our attention. An extraordinary example of this is the Invisible Gorilla effect. Two researchers from Harvard asked a group of participants to watch a video of two basketball teams (wearing black and white t-shirts) passing the ball around. The subjects were told to keep count of bounce passes of the white t-shirt team and ignore the passages between black t-shirt players.

Halfway through the experiment a woman wearing a full gorilla suit walks through the scene, pounds her chest for 9 seconds and then disappears.

Over half of the participants who had the specific task of counting the passes did not see the gorilla. They even declared themselves certain that the gorilla did not exist, insisting that they couldn’t possibly have missed something so unusual.

We are blind to evidence and blind to our own blindness.

Hold on! These interactions between system 1 and system 2 can turn in our favor.

The so-called “priming effect” is a good example. It’s based on ideomotor effects: in a nutshell, our actions influence our feelings and vice versa.

During an experiment, some volunteers were asked to assess how funny different British jokes were (you can imagine the amusement). Half of them were told to hold a pencil in their mouth. They didn’t realize that this caused their facial muscles to assume the typical “smiling face” contractions. The unaware smiling people found the jokes much more amusing than the others.

I find this astonishing: unconscious actions influence our thoughts.

What can we learn from all this? Even if our attention is limited and our emotions moody, all is not lost. And if you ever feel depressed about how much of this world is still undiscovered: take a pencil, hold it in your mouth and your system 1 will do the rest.

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Francesca Bertolino

Francesca Bertolino

Originally from Italy and currently studying Political Economy of Europe at the London School of Economics. Obsessed with efficiency and passionate about economic research and public policy, she writes for The International Post.