In one of the most famous scenes in Jurassic Park, the children freeze in the jeep so that the terrifying Tirax won’t see them. The most dangerous predator that ever walked the planet is endowed with one glaring weakness, he is unable to notice things that do not move, which ultimately saves the lives of Spielberg’s main heroes. It’s easy to chuckle at the giant lizard, but how different are we really from it?
It turns out that when it comes to attention, not by much. In the same scene itself, a few seconds later, the camera zooms over the fence, where the tyrax stood just before, and now, oddly enough, there is a deep chasm there that there is no way the dinosaur could have emerged from – how many of us noticed this staging mistake? Hundreds of such errors are scattered throughout the film, and Hollywood even developed folklore around famous screw-ups. Marilyn Brando’s Rolex watch that peeks at a scene on another planet, dozens of gunshot wounds that disappear from the car in the assassination scene in The Godfather, and many more.
Our brain has to deal with a huge influx of information, process it quickly and filter according to simple rules of thumb which of all this fluency will affect behavior and burn into memory. It so happens that everything relevant to the dominant narrative at a given moment is absorbed and saved, and everything else is marginalized and filtered out of our attention spotlight. When it comes to the narrative of a cinematic story, this feature is extremely useful, we are free to enjoy the story and ignore inaccuracies or plot holes that are simply filtered out. The problem starts where our attention is caught up in a false narrative or misses significant things because of a boring routine, then submarines sink, planes crash, and respectable venture capitalists go bankrupt overnight.
Daniel Simmons was a young psychologist when he became famous throughout the scientific community for a simple experiment that became a classic as soon as it was published. Simmons proved that it is enough to make each of us concentrate on a simple task so that we miss a giant human-sized gorilla walking slowly in front of us, stopping a blow to the chest and disappearing as it comes. Simmons’ experimental video has often been used in workshops to illustrate to a skeptical audience how short-sighted we are to things we don’t expect to see in advance. In the book, the authors explore the phenomenon of selective attention with fascinating examples and set some rules for situations in which we tend to ignore gorillas.
If we want to change people’s routine behavior, they first need to start paying attention to signs that they were previously blind to, too much expense, overwhelming, poor priorities, and more. Sometimes it’s enough to miss a gorilla one beat to start seeing it anywhere in life.
A successful gorilla hunter!