Who Saw the Gorilla in the Room? – An Illustration of How Easy it is to Miss Important Information

confirmation bias

One of the challenges researchers face is confirmation bias. People unconsciously gravitate toward data that confirms what they expect and often fail to notice information that should have a big impact on their conclusions. It’s an easy trap to fall into, especially if we are looking at the results of a study in isolation—without broader context.

I talked about this with Kristopher Sauriol, Senior Director, Global Research and Insights at Visa, and he pointed me to an iconic study which brilliantly reveals how what you look for can determine what you see. The ‘Gorillas in Our Midst’ experiment by psychologists Daniel J Simons and Christopher F Chabris is a classic.

In the experiment, subjects were asked to watch a short video and to count the basketball passes. It seems a simple request, but it was made more taxing because people had to count basketball passes by the team wearing white shirts, while a black- shirted team also passed a ball. This caused people to focus on a specific endpoint.

While respondents tried to count basketball passes, in the video a person dressed in a gorilla suit walked across the screen. Half the people in the experiment never saw the gorilla, because they were focused on counting the passes.

Check out the video for yourself. It seems almost impossible that people would miss the gorilla, knowing what you now know about this experiment. But the fact that it has been shown to be true is numerous cases shows how easily we can miss important points when we are too narrowly focused on an expected outcome.

Teppo Felin, a professor of strategy at Oxford, suggests this experiment illuminates how important ingoing expectations are. He recently wrote, “Imagine you were asked to watch the clip again, but this time without receiving any instructions. After watching the clip, imagine you were then asked to report what you observed. You might report that you saw two teams passing a basketball. You are very likely to have observed the gorilla. But having noticed these things, you are unlikely to have simultaneously recorded any number of other things. The clip features a large number of other obvious things that one could potentially pay attention to and report: the total number of basketball passes, the overall gender or racial composition of the individuals passing the ball, the number of steps taken by the participants. If you are looking for them, many other things are also obvious in the clip: the hair color of the participants, their attire, their emotions, the color of the carpet (beige), the ‘S’ letters spray-painted in the background, and so forth.”

To Sauriol, the ‘Gorillas in Our Midst’ study perfectly “illustrates the point that you’ve got to pull your head up sometimes. You’ve got to look at what’s going on around you. You can’t be so focused on that one data point.”

What you are looking for matters. Looking at a broader context, and keeping an open mind is critical—if you want to notice the gorilla in the room.