Sunday, September 3, 2017

Off the Shelf: The Invisible Gorilla

"Reading this book will make you less sure of yourself—and that's a good thing."

From time to time, it's not a book from the sagging shelves of my own book-acquiring foibles that I've selected for the month's reading penance, but a book from someone else's collection.

Yes, it is true: I've married someone with the same book-collecting weakness as I have. Only he has an excuse: he bought this book for his business.

While that may be entirely true (he has used material from this book in presentations in at least three different locations this year), the book I'm talking about today has sat on a shelf at his desk, right where it can taunt me as I pass by each day. By this weekend, I had had enough, and succumbed to cracking open the cover and reading.

Before I tell you anything about this book, or why I think it applies to what we do in the world of genealogical research, I have to start out with a spoiler alert. The reason why my husband has yet to actually read this book is because he already read the academic study that preceded it. Not only that, but he's seen the video.

Yes, there is a video. In this case, it came before the book. You might have already seen the video, too, as it has certainly made the rounds on online venues.

But in case you have yet to see the short video with the instructions given up front to count the passes between the team members wearing the white shirts, perhaps you best try the thing out for a test drive yourself here, before reading further.

The video came from an experiment originally conducted by the authors of the book—Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons—in conjunction with some of their psychology students at Harvard. The results were unexpected, to say the least, and opened up a world of study on what has become labeled as illusions: "the myriad ways that our intuitions can deceive us."

The assumption "that people will notice when something unusual happens right in front of them" has, according to The Invisible Gorilla, been proven wrong time and again. The authors kindly label that shortfall as "selective attention." Needless to say, the authors are not impressed with the brain's ability to "multi-task" and they are death on driving while talking on a cell phone—hand-held or hands-free.

The book gets right down to where we live, even though the first chapter opens with a chase pursuing murder suspects. From such high tension episodes to the more mundane mishaps of life, the authors find ways to drive home their message: "to pierce the veil of illusions that cloud our thoughts and to think clearly for perhaps the first time."

As one reviewer of the book noted, "Everyday illusions trick us into thinking that we see—and know—more than we really do, and that we can predict the future when we can't." The book turns out to be "a lively tour of the brain's blind spots," useful, of course, for law enforcement professionals—but also for any of us hoping to achieve goals with progress reports based on a feedback loop. Anyone needing to mentally process input can profit from the cautions in this book.

I see its application to our world of genealogy in two ways: one, for research, and the other for the collective work we rely on in societies and other associations.

Yes, agreed that we are not peering into the future with our research into the history of our ancestors. But we can still be blindsided by our ideas about the historical milieu these ancestors were living in versus our own modern reality. Often, we try to overlay our current assumptions upon the lifespans of our mystery ancestors—and yet, come up surprised when our "brick walls" don't yield to our diligent research. Perhaps the unyielding wall is more attributed to selective attention on our part than missing documents on our ancestors' part. If we could develop the skill of being open to seeing the unexpected (if it is truly there but as invisible as a gorilla to our weary researching eyes), perhaps that expanded understanding could lead us to some breakthroughs.

When we as researchers come together as societies for learning and mutual research assistance, it is so tempting to align with the status quo—to keep on keeping on with what has worked in the past. Yet even here, on a collective level, planning for future programs, organizational development and growth trajectory, thinking outside the box will require shaking loose from those illusions decried by Chabris and Simons. If we don't see what we don't expect, could it be that we also will get what we do expect? When it comes to organizational planning, here we definitely need unclouded thinking. Our group's success depends on that type of leadership.

Whether there is or isn't an invisible gorilla standing in your path—in your own research or as you work with your local genealogical society—having a book that makes you less sure of your assumptions is a good thing, at least if it guides you toward more accurate perceptions and lets you arrive at more reasonable conclusions.

Note: While there are no affiliate links present in this post, our family's business has purchased rights to use the authors' video in our own company's training programs. Regardless of that business relationship, views expressed in this review are solely those of this writer.


  1. Another amazing article. So many times the answer to our research problems is in plain sight out in the back yard after we look at all kinds of theories that just don't pan out. Thank you.

    1. Isn't that just the truth, Grant?! It can be more difficult than we think to see those solutions that are out there "in plain sight."

  2. My husband and I will look at the video.
    If you ask me everyone is distracted now a days...just put down your phones! :) Since I don't have a phone except on the wall I notice everyone else on theirs:)

    1. Interesting :0 I counted 14 and my husband counted 12 but we both saw the gorilla:)

    2. Interesting you saw it, Far Side! Some do, some don't--and some can't believe they actually missed it!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...