One of my kids recently asked me why the moon “shrinks,” as it gets higher in the sky. By the time I had finished explaining the science behind perceptual aberrations and bias, she had moved on to more stimulating and fluffy topics. Momma Gump, it seems, I am not.
The conversation did, however, get me thinking about just how important perception is when it comes to constructing our own, unique understanding of reality, and how fallible that reality can be.
One of my favorite studies about perceptual bias highlights a fascinating failure of attention. Two psychologists, Drs. Chris Chabris and Dan Simons, conducted a study they called, “Gorillas in Our Midst”, which they later detailed in the book, “The Invisible Gorilla.” The project was designed to assess the degree to which experimental subjects would notice a person in a gorilla suit walk directly through a group of people passing a basketball. As part of the experiment, subjects were asked to count the number of times that people in white shirts (intermixed with people wearing black shirts) were passing the the basketball between themselves for a short period of time. At the end, subjects were asked not only how many times the ball was passed, but also if they had noticed the gorilla. More than half responded, “What gorilla?” and were adamant that they could not possibly have missed something so obvious.
Of course, they had missed something so obvious, and what was particularly interesting was just how convinced they were that they hadn’t. So much so that when shown the clip again, this time with the the knowledge that a person in a gorilla suit had walked straight through the frame (even stopping in the middle briefly for a little King Kong style chest thumping), many subjects accused the researchers of showing them a different clip!
It turns out that challenges with attention, optical illusions, and other perceptual anomalies are more common than we think. The reason we are susceptible to them is simple—our brains are attempting to quickly make sense of the the world in a reliable way, which becomes even more challenging as the amount, complexity, and speed of information increases (Singularity, anyone?). For example some of you may have noticed that the word “the” was repeated three separate times across the past three paragraphs. No doubt, many of you did not.
Speaking of recent perceptual anomalies, remember the 2015 Internet sensation of “The Dress”? Based on a picture of a single dress, there was passionate debate as to whether the dress was black and blue or white and gold, with nearly equal numbers of people adamant that it was one or the the other. My favorite Twitter post from one respondent read, “Anyone who disagrees, I’m at 37th & Madison, come fight me.” What’s most interesting to me, personally, however, is that I see it as a hybrid (blue & gold)… If anyone disagrees with me, I’ll also be a 37th & Madison if you care to “discuss.”
Going back to what our brains “want” for a moment, a funny thing happens when reality and fantasy collide—bias tends to favor fantasy, and it’s especially common across all manner of human relationships. Perhaps the best example is marriage. More than 50 percent of first marriages in the the U.S. will end in divorce, and it only gets worse for second marriages and beyond. Knowing that, what percentage of people about to be married do you think believe they’re destined for divorce court? Yep, you guessed it, a LOT less than 50 percent.
So what do shrinking moons, invisible gorillas, blue and gold dresses, and failed marriages have to do with executive assessment and selection? A lot, actually—the willful act of executive selection necessarily depends on lots of specific attention to detail, which, of course, opens the process up to numerous opportunities for perceptual error and bias. Unfortunately, simply knowing that the bias exists does little to address it. After all, perhaps some of you noticed that I repeated the word “the” AGAIN 3 times in the the previous two (and current) paragraphs. No doubt, many of you did not.