Category Archives: About Research

Bargaining with Monkeys Like Us

In this excellent TED talk, primatologist  Laurie Santos discusses the roots of human irrationality by uncovering the way our primate relatives make decisions. Is it possible that the errors we make–like failing to save money–are not “mistakes” (in the conventional sense) but actually hardwired into our natures?  Santos’ experiments in “monkeynomics” suggest answers to that question that might make human exceptionalists a little nervous.


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Did You See the Gorilla? An Interview with Psychologist Daniel Simons

If you’ve spent any time on YouTube over the last few years (and you know you have), you’ve likely seen the video of the invisible gorilla experiment (if you’ve somehow missed it, catch yourself up here). The researchers who conducted that study, Dan Simons and Chris Chabris, didn’t realize that they were about to create an instant classic—a psychology study mentioned alongside the greats, and known well outside the slim confines of psych wonks. Milgram taught us about our sheepish obedience to authority; Mischel used marshmallows to teach us about delayed gratification; and Simons and Chabris used a faux gorilla to teach us that we are not the masters of attention we think we are.

The duo’s new book, The Invisible Gorilla, and Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us, is every bit as engaging as the original study was innovative.Using the invisible gorilla study as a jumping off point, the authors go on to explain why so many of our intuitions are off the mark, though we’re typically convinced otherwise. I recently had a chance to chat with Dan Simons about the study, the book, and why we’re usually in the dark about how our minds really work.

DiSalvo: What gave you and Chris Chabris the idea for the invisible gorilla study?

Simons: Our study was actually based on some earlier research by Ulric Neisser conducted in the 1970s.  His studies were designed to tease apart whether people focus attention on regions of space or on objects.  He wanted to see whether, if people were focusing on one part of a scene, they would automatically notice if something unexpected passed through that “spotlight” of attention.  To do that, he made all the objects partly transparent so that they all occupied the same space and could pass through each other. He found that people often missed an unexpected event.  But, the strange, ghostly appearance of the displays gave people a ready excuse for why they missed the unexpected event. Oddly, no one followed up on those studies, so we thought we’d give them another look and see whether people would miss something that was fully visible and easy to see.  We did our study as part of an undergraduate class project in a class that I was teaching.

Why the gorilla suit?

We were looking for something dramatic so that if people missed it, they would be surprised when we showed it to them again.  We also wanted something that would have some humor value to it.  Fortunately for us, Jerome Kagan, an eminent developmental psychologist at Harvard, happened to have one in his lab.

I remember the first time I watched the YouTube video of the study and was completely dumfounded when the question, “Did you see the gorilla?” flashed on the screen.  As researchers, I can imagine getting that reaction from people is like hitting a home run.

It surprised us the first time we ran the study – we didn’t expect it to work as well as it did.  It’s still a thrill to present the video to an audience and have people miss it.  Our intuition that we’ll notice something as visible as a gorilla is a hard one to overcome.  It took me years before I could trust that some people in almost any audience would miss it.

What do people tell you about their reaction afterwards?

Normally people can’t believe that they missed it.  On occasion, they’ve accused us of switching the video. The intuition that we would notice makes it jarring for people to realize that they didn’t.

And that’s really the point, right, that we can’t know what we are missing until our attention is refocused on it?

That’s a big part of it.  We can easily miss what’s right in front of us, but we don’t realize that we can.  Part of the problem is that we’re only aware of the things we notice and we’re not aware of the things we didn’t notice.  Consequently, we often have no idea what we’re missing.

Hence the myth of multi-tasking.

It depends on what you mean by multi-tasking.  If you mean simultaneous attention shared across multiple tasks, then yes, it’s a myth. We typically cannot do two things simultaneously.  We can perform multiple tasks one after another—a sort of serial tasking.

In the case of the first meaning, simultaneous attention across multiple tasks, why do you think so many of us are convinced we can do it?

I think a lot of people confuse these two possible ways of doing multiple tasks.  Because we can do one task and then another, switching back and forth among them, we falsely believe we can do two at once.  That confusion happens in part because we don’t realize how impaired we are when doing two things at once.  We’re too distracted to notice that we’re distracted.  That has dramatic consequences.  For example, we can’t talk on the phone while driving because that requires doing two tasks at once rather than sequentially (and both require attention).

Where does the intuition originate?

Our intuitions are based on our experiences. The problem is that our daily experiences frequently support incorrect intuitions about how our minds work.  We only are aware of the things we’ve noticed and we aren’t aware of the things we’ve missed, so we assume that we always notice things.  We don’t notice when we’re distracted by multitasking, so we think we aren’t distracted.  The same sort of principle explains many of our mistaken intuitions.

But why wouldn’t we develop an intuition from our experience that we can’t parse our attention?

Our experience is tied to our awareness.  We are aware of what we notice, not of what we miss, so we develop an intuition based on noticing. The principle applies to multi-tasking: we are aware only that we are accomplishing multiple tasks, because our daily life demands it, but we aren’t aware that we’re not really doing them at the same time. As a result, we mistakenly assume that we can do two things at once.  Given that we rarely encounter evidence to contradict our awareness — normally, there’s nobody around to point out the gorilla — we don’t learn when our intuitions are wrong.

We see people all the time who know very bad things can happen from, as one example, texting while driving, but they still do it.

That’s true, but most people could drive much of their lives without having an accident. And the longer they go without having an accident, the more they are deluded into thinking they can drive and text safely.  Fortunately, accidents are rare, but when they happen, they are catastrophic.  Knowing that we have these limits and taking them to heart can save our lives.  We learn best from our own experiences, but in this case, you shouldn’t wait to experience the consequences of distracted driving for yourself.

I can’t help but notice how so much of what we’ve been discussing runs counter to the conclusions of one of the most popular non-fiction books out there: Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. Many people I’ve talked to who have read that book are convinced that we should trust our instincts instead of thinking things through.

The idea that intuition, gut instincts, and rapid decisions are a panacea for all of our decision making problems is really dangerous.  Unfortunately, that’s the message that some people have taken from Gladwell’s book.  Intuitions can be quite useful for some types of decisions, especially those that involve an emotional preference —who do you find most attractive, what ice cream tastes best—but they can lead us dangerously wrong when they are based on assumptions about how our minds work.  Gladwell is an incredible storyteller, but some of the conclusions he reaches in Blink are problematic.  Our work, and the work of other cognitive scientists, shows again and again that the intuitions people hold about how their minds work are often wrong.  When you dig deeper into the material he covers in Blink, you see that many of the featured examples are of expert pattern recognition, and that’s a very different thing than simply trusting intuition or instinct.

Like the example of a quarterback acting decisively without having time to think?

Yes, that’s expert pattern recognition.  Peyton Manning studies films for many hours in preparation for each game, and he has done that for years.  Then, in a game situation, he recognizes the pattern really quickly, and that leads him to find the open receiver readily.  That said, even expert pattern recognition is far from perfect.  If you let Manning analyze the films at a leisurely pace, he’ll find things he missed during the game.  The same principle applies to most experts.  They can make reasonably good decisions quickly and seemingly based on intuition — they’ll outperform novices with only a glance.  But given more time, even the experts often would make better decisions.

Yet the takeaway for many people is that “thinking” is a hindrance.

Thinking takes work, and the idea that we could go with our gut and do better is really appealing.  Unfortunately, it’s often not true.

What can we expect as a follow up from you guys? Can you top the gorilla study?

It’s hard to top having people miss a gorilla.  I do have a new paper that just came out in the new open-access journal I-Perception.  It talks about a new demonstration that I’ve called “The Monkey Business Illusion.”  It’s on YouTube now.  Basically, I wanted to see if people who knew about the original gorilla video would be immune to this sort of failure of awareness.  Try it for yourself!

Link to the authors’ website.
Simons, D. (2010). Monkeying around with the gorillas in our midst: familiarity with an inattentional-blindness task does not improve the detection of unexpected events i-Perception, 1 (1), 3-6 DOI: 10.1068/i0386


Filed under About Perception, About Research, Books and Ideas

Looking into the Mind of a Murderer

In the first video below, Dr. Jim Fallon discusses his studies of murderers’ brains and the surprising patterns that he has identified, including an overabundance of serotonin in utero for male children (turns out, being “bathed” in the so-called feel-good neurotransmitter isn’t a good thing).  He also discusses an amazing family discovery that he stumbled upon while conducing his research.

The second and third videos are the first two parts of an absolutely chilling interview with the “Ice Man,” Richard Kuklinski, a mafia contract killer and perhaps the most prolific serial killer in U.S. history.


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How a Woman’s Touch Can Make You Risk it All

If you’re a man who has patronized Vegas casinos, this scenario might sound familiar to you.

You’re standing at the Craps table and have already rolled a couple of times, losing money each time. You throw another roll, this time thankfully making back the money you lost.

Just then, from the corner of your eye, you notice that an attractive woman seems to be interested in your game (and perhaps you). You throw another roll and win again. You’re debating whether to quit while you’re ahead and cash out, but your concentration is broken by the woman who is now smiling at you and says, “You’re really doing great” as she reaches out and touches you gently on your back.

Not only do you decide to keep playing, but you significantly increase your bet. You lose, but she encourages you again with another touch, and you bet again.

What’s going on here? Are you simply so caught up in trying to impress this woman that you keep betting even though you’re in the hole?  Perhaps.  But according to a new study published in the journal Psychological Science, the reason might go deeper than that.

Participants were tested to see if they would take risks, such as investing money or making a substantial gamble. Before taking the risk, they were greeted in one of three different ways: (1) by a female or male researcher with a light touch on the shoulder, (2) a handshake, or (3) no physical contact at all. At the end of the experiment, participants filled out surveys that assessed how secure they felt.

The researchers found that participants who were touched on the shoulder felt more secure and took bigger risks than those who weren’t—but only if they were touched by a woman. The effect was stronger for a touch than for a handshake, but disappeared entirely for participants who were touched by a man.

The interesting part about this is that the same finding was found for men and women who were touched by a woman, suggesting that this is not solely a sexual attraction effect.

The researchers draw a line between this finding to previous research on how a woman’s touch affects an infant, making the child feel more secure and comfortable. It’s entirely possible that a woman’s touch works the same on adults—making them feel more secure and willing to take risks.

Which brings us back to the casino scenario. What do you think are the chances that the woman in question works for the casino and is planted in the crowd to make sure guys like you keep playing?

Don’t feel bad, but they’re a lot higher than the chances you’ll keep winning.


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Ask, Don’t Tell, and Get it Done

Are you the sort of person who routinely tells yourself that you probably can’t achieve whatever it is you’d like to achieve? Does the voice in your head say things like, “Be realistic, you can’t really do this.”  And perhaps, fed up with positive self-talk mumbo jumbo in the media, you think that the only self-talk worth listening to is the “realistic” kind—the kind that tells you how it is. 

Well, whatever your feelings about positive psychology and its many spin-offs, there is some decent research with something to say about all of this—and your little voice should be listening. Research by University of Illinois Professor Dolores Albarracin and her team has shown that those who ask themselves whether they will perform a task generally do better than those who tell themselves that they will.

But first, a slight digression. If you have young kids or even early teens (or just have the misfortune of watching children’s TV shows), you may be familiar with the show “Bob the Builder.”  Bob is a positive little man with serious intentions about building and fixing things.  Prior to taking on any given task, he loudly asks himself and his team, “Can we fix it?”  To which his team responds, “Yes we can!”   Now, compare this approach with that of the Little Engine Who Could, who’s oft repeated success phrase was, “I think I can, I think I can…”  In a nutshell, the research we’re about to discuss wanted to know which approach works best.

Researchers tested these two different motivational approaches first by telling study participants to either spend a minute wondering whether they would complete a task or telling themselves they would. The participants showed more success on an anagram task (rearranging words to create different words) when they asked themselves whether they would complete it than when they told themselves they would.

In another experiment, students were asked to write two seemingly unrelated sentences, starting with either “I Will” or “Will I,” and then work on the same anagram task. Participants did better when they wrote, “Will I” even though they had no idea that the word writing related to the anagram task.  A final experiment added the dimension of having participants complete a test designed to gauge motivation levels.  Again, the participants who asked themselves whether they would complete the task did better on the task, and scored significantly higher on the motivation test.

In other words, by asking themselves a question, people were more likely to build their own motivation than if they simply told themselves they’d get it done.

The takeaway for us: that little voice has a point, sort of.  Telling ourselves that we can achieve a goal may not get us very far. Asking ourselves, on the other hand, can bear significant fruit, indeed. Retool your self-talk to focus on the questions instead of presupposing answers, and allow your mind to build motivation around the questions.

A short-cut:  just remember the battle cry of Bob the Builder.


Filed under About Perception, About Research

When You Expect Rapid Feedback, the Fire to Perform Gets Hotter

Let’s say that you’re preparing for an extremely important test that you and roughly 100 other classmates will be taking in a week.  A few days before the test, you find out that your instructor will be going on a trip not long after the test is over and will be providing written and verbal feedback to the students within a day of the test.

This is unusual, because ordinarily the instructor waits a week or more before providing feedback.  About half of the class finds out that they’ll be getting rapid feedback and the other half thinks they won’t receive feedback for several days, per usual.

Which group is more likely to perform better on the test?

That question was investigated by University of Alberta researchers Keri Kettle and Gerald Haubl in a study published in the journal Psychological Science. The researchers hypothesized that the mere anticipation of proximate feedback would result in better performance on a test. Previous research has shown that when feedback is rapid, the threat of disappointment increases. The desire to avoid the negative feeling of disappointment—the feeling you get when you fall short of expectations—is a potent motivator to perform well.

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Women and Men are Guilt Ships Passing in the Night

Only occasionally do studies come out that improve the image of men as more than stubborn, violent and incorrigible beasts with malfunctioning moral compasses. The study I’m about to talk about isn’t one of them.

For this peek into male shortcomings, we turn to the Spanish Journal of Psychology. Researchers wanted to test the hypothesis that women in the West experience an especially high level of guilt as compared to men, and that these elevated guilt levels correlate with high levels of interpersonal sensitivity. 

Three hundred and sixty children, adolescents and adults were recruited and divided into male and female groups. Psychologists then put the groups through a battery of psychological tests to determine what elicits the participants’ feelings of guilt, and to gauge levels of interpersonal sensitivity.

What the research team found is that women in all three age groups experienced significantly higher feelings of habitual guilt than men, with the 40-50 year-old bracket experiencing the most. Female children and teens also experience more guilt than males in their respective age groups.

The correlation with interpersonal sensitivity followed suit for all age groups (women higher, men lower) – but, for men in the 25-33 age bracket the sensitivity score was especially low. The researchers noted that with such low scores, men in this group have a serious empathetic guilt handicap. Safe to say, not an appealing personality trait.

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