Christopher Chabris:

082 – Gorillas In Our Midst with Christopher Chabris

Christopher Chabris:

082 – Gorillas In Our Midst with Christopher Chabris

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In this episode, we are joined by cognitive psychologist, Christopher Chabris, who is perhaps best known for his collaborative research on the Ig Nobel prize-winning ‘Gorillas in Our Midst’ experiment and his subsequent popular psychology book, The Invisible Gorilla. Chris is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Union College in New York and a Senior Investigator at Geisinger Health System.

  • Why Chris believes companies often fail the test of inattentional blindness during the product design phase
  • Why our attention is more limited than we think and how learning self-control can help us to take in more information
  • Why we overvalue confidence and how we can work to recognize and overcome our own cognitive biases

Key Takeaways and Learnings

  • Inattentional blindness: the surprising facts on how limited our attention is
  • Illusion of attention: why we think we pay more attention to things than we actually do
  • Human cognitive architecture: how understanding the limitations and foibles of the human mind can lead to successful product and technology design

Links and Resources Mentioned in this Episode


In this episode, we are joined by cognitive psychologist, Christopher Chabris, who is perhaps best known for his collaborative research on the Ig Nobel prize-winning ‘Gorillas in Our Midst’ experiment and his subsequent popular psychology book, The Invisible Gorilla. Chris is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Union College in New York and a Senior Investigator at Geisinger Health System.

Christopher Chabris

Christopher Chabris is a Professor at Geisinger, an integrated healthcare system in Pennsylvania. His research focuses on attention, intelligence (individual, collective, and social), behavior genetics, and decision-making. He has published papers on a diverse array of topics, including human intelligence, beauty and the brain, face recognition, the Mozart effect, genetics in social science, group performance, intertemporal choice, chess expertise, and visual cognition. Chris is the co-author of the book The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us. He shared the 2004 Ig Nobel Prize in Psychology  (awarded for “achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think”), given for the scientific experiment that inspired the book. Chris is a chess master, poker amateur, and games enthusiast; for three years he wrote the monthly “Game On” column in The Wall Street Journal.

What Was Covered

  • Why Chris believes companies often fail the test of inattentional blindness during the product design phase
  • Why our attention is more limited than we think and how learning self-control can help us to take in more information
  • Why we overvalue confidence and how we can work to recognize and overcome our own cognitive biases

Key Takeaways and Learnings

  • Inattentional blindness: the surprising facts on how limited our attention is
  • Illusion of attention: why we think we pay more attention to things than we actually do
  • Human cognitive architecture: how understanding the limitations and foibles of the human mind can lead to successful product and technology design

Links and Resources Mentioned in this Episode

So, with me today is Chris Chabris. So, Chris, how do you answer the dinner party conversation, ‘What do you do?’

I wish I really had a good answer for that but usually what I say is I’m a cognitive psychologist and then I have to explain that that means that I am a scientist who studies how people think, and perceive, and make decisions just to make sure that people don’t think that I’m a clinical psychologist and I can actually solve their personal problems.

Okay, and you’re best known I guess for the experiment conducted with Harvard students in the late nineties, the Gorilla Experiment. Can you explain what led up to that experiment and what it is for people who might not realize that they’re familiar with it?

Well, Dan Simons and I – Dan was a professor at Harvard at the time, in fact a new professor who had just joined a year or two earlier – Dan and I were teaching a course and it was a course in how to do psychology experiments for undergraduate students and some graduate students, and in the course all the students had to design their own experiment, and execute it, and write it up and so on, a pretty traditional kind of way of teaching students how to do research in psychology, but Dan had the brilliant idea that we should all do a group experiment together, one experiment that all the students could be involved in together as a group and I had no idea what that could possibly be but Dan knew of this prior research from about 20 years earlier by Ulric Neisser who in fact was one of the pioneers of cognitive psychology. He’s the guy who wrote the first book called Cognitive Psychology decades earlier, and Neisser had created this video where he had people passing basketballs around and a woman walked through the middle of this basketball action carrying an umbrella, and Neisser had found that when he showed people this video and asked the observers to count the number of times one of the groups of players threw their ball people could miss this woman walking through the crowd, and I was not aware of this experiment, it sort of was a semi-famous experiment that I didn’t know about and when I saw the video what became obvious to me was what is obvious to everybody else which is that everybody in the video is a ghost. Neisser in the 1970s had to use this weird technique of mirrors to sort of superimpose different video streams to get this to happen and Dan suggested that we film it with everybody fully present at the same time, so all the basketball players in the same space and a person walking through at the same time, and we had all the students we needed to do that. So, we started filming one class period and fortunately for us one of the students on the course, or one of the students who was in Dan’s lab, was also in another lab where they happened to have a gorilla suit that they used for studies of infants believe it or not, and he borrowed the gorilla suit, and we had someone walk through in the gorilla suit and we ran one version of this where the person turns and faces the camera and thumps their chest. So, we have a video at the end of this with people passing basketballs around and when we went and did the experiment it turned out that when you asked people to silently count the number of times the people in white shirts throw the ball that about half the people don’t notice this gorilla walking right through the middle of the action, turning to face the camera, thumping its chest and leaving even though it’s on the screen for nine seconds out of about a 60 second video or so. It was the most dramatic demonstration of how much people could miss that was done in an experimental context. We ran this as a real psychology experiment and we did lots of different conditions and really found that people could miss something surprisingly salient that they would otherwise see completely ordinarily if they weren’t engaging their attention in this main task, they would notice it every time.

And it was picked up by the mainstream press, by TV, there’s even, I think, a museum exhibit on this experiment. What’s actually going on and why do you think this has been such a powerful and well-followed experiment?

Well, the study illustrates a concept in cognitive psychology called inattentional blindness which refers to the idea that if you’re not paying attention to something, sometimes it can be as though you’re completely blind to it. So, the gorilla walking across the screen is an extremely salient event, it even tries to get your attention, and yet the people who don’t notice the gorilla don’t remember it later or anything like that. It’s not like they even saw it and forgot about it, it’s really a dramatic demonstration of the amount that people can be missing. The concept of inattentional blindness had been around before we did this experiment. Neisser hadn’t thought of it. He used different terminology but the concept was around, but most of the demonstrations were not noticing dots that flashed briefly on the screen and things like that, and here was a nine seconds long event trying to get your attention. So, why this became, I think, such a popular demonstration is A, it showed the larger extent of this cognitive illusion, this problem of not noticing salient things and also, of course, it was a gorilla, so that’s a large part of it, and we called the scientific paper ‘Gorillas in Our Midst’ and whenever you have a gorilla that just increases the media interest by some factor.

Yeah, and what’s the reason behind it? Is this deep-rooted and back to our sort of days in the wild, you know the fight or flight response? I mean, what’s going on here?

Well, that’s a good question. Obviously, I think that there are still some fundamental features of how the brain’s visual system and how our cognitive systems are designed that leads to this because you can demonstrate it in lots of different situations with lots of different kinds of stimuli and visual events, and you can demonstrate it for sounds and even for touch I believe, and even for smells I believe. Someone’s recently done a study where people can fail to smell salient odors when their attention is occupied in some other way, so it really does seem to reflect a fundamental feature about the architecture of the mind, and the way I like to think about it is that attention is required for a lot of the important cognition that we do. So, a lot of the important things we can do that involve thinking about things, processing them deeply and so on, require or benefit a lot from attention and when we spend attention on one thing we have surprisingly little or even none available for other things, and the surprisingly part is key because it would be one thing if our attention was limited, and we all knew that all the time, and we all adjusted to compensate and so on, but the problem is that we tend to be surprised how limited our attention is. We tend to think that we will notice important things that happen no matter what we’re doing and that’s probably why we do so much multitasking in life and why we talk on cell phones when we’re driving cars and things like that. It’s the mismatch between the way we think our minds work, that is, we think we notice all kinds of stuff and we think we’re paying attention and in fact, the way they really do work which is our attention is more limited and takes up more cognitive resources than we believe.

Yeah, and I love your variation on the theme in the book, the GPS induced blindness, I think we’ve all done it, right, but I mean there are some pretty stark examples of people who ended up somewhere completely different as a result of following the GPS almost religiously.

Oh, someplace completely different like in a river?

Yes, or a train track, right?

Yeah, wedged between two buildings because the GPS doesn’t know how wide their truck is and it sends them down some Medieval lane in England or something like that, and their truck literally gets stuck between the buildings, so yes, there are many, many examples where this happens in everyday life. Some of them are humorous like that, others can be serious. For example, if you’re the pilot of a commercial plane you had better not be getting your attention too absorbed in one place to the point where it affects your ability to see other really important things right in front of you.

Yeah, and in the world of business how does this play out? What does this look like in the world of commerce?

Well, I think there are some pretty obvious examples of how inattentional blindness in the classic visual sense plays out. One that keeps on coming up is when companies design products whose very existence is predicated on the idea that we can pay attention to more than we really can. So, Google Glass, I think, was an example of this. Google Glass is a product where essentially computer displays were going to be displayed on the lenses of glasses that you were wearing and in fact, the product exists and while I think it may have some applications in general, it raises the issue of how people can pay attention to something at one depth in front of them, that is right in front of them on their lenses while also noticing things that are happening at other depths. It’s sort of a little bit of a related illusion, right? You think that if something is in front of you, you’re going to notice it, but attention can focus on things at different depths and this gets involved in heads-up displays in cars also, and in fact, just the last car we bought has one. So, in a heads-up display in a car, information is projected that appears to be in your windshield or in front of you somehow, maybe hovering over the dashboard or something like that or hovering over the front of the hood of the car. You have to make sure that you don’t pay too much attention to that because you may mistakenly think you’re also paying attention to everything in front of you when in fact you’re focusing at one depth. So, product design often fails the test of inattentional blindness by falling victim to the same problem.

I was driving one of these Teslas for a test drive the other day and everyone loved the huge screen and everything, and I did until I read the book, I don’t know whether you’ve read it, A Dangerous Wandering? Have you read that book that was based on a true story where some kid in Utah was texting and was involved in a huge pileup, this was just earlier in this century so probably ten years ago just as all the phone companies were beginning to push texting, and it was a real tragedy but the reality was that no one had made the connection that actually the moment you send a text it takes about 15 seconds before you’re able to bring your attention back to the road and yet no one was talking about the dangers of texting while driving. Today, obviously, we have very strong views on it but back then it was I suppose almost like drink driving in the 1950s, it was something that we didn’t really talk about.

I think that that sounds right. I mean, certainly the danger of texting or otherwise using your phone, like playing games and so on while driving was unappreciated at first and I think the lack of appreciation of it reflects the idea that Dan and I talk about in the book which we call in the book the ‘illusion of attention’ which is that mistaken belief that we notice more things than we really do and our attention is more powerful and flexible than it really is. Now, there have been many tragedies like the one you described. They are described repeatedly in newspapers and criminal trials and so on. I’ve never been into Tesla unfortunately, I would love to someday to try it out, but my understanding is that it’s got a very large sort of central display, it kind of looks like a giant iPad or something like that, and there’s a difference between the displays that are in the car and the ones that are projected into your field of view. So, we can look down and then look back up because I think what’s going on is that our intuition does tell us that when our eyes are not pointed at the road, we’re definitely not seeing what’s happening on the road. The problem is that our intuition tells us that when our eyes are pointed at the road we’re going to notice things, so displaying information in your visual field so that you don’t have to move your eyes is actually ironically more dangerous than displaying it on a giant console where you have to shift your eyes and then you realize that after a certain amount of time, you better shift back. That seems like a much more automatic and intuitive thing. We don’t always do it of course. We could be paying too much attention to the kids arguing in the back seat and not see something. It’s not foolproof but it’s more intuitive than something that’s right in front of your face.

Yeah. So, coming back to the corporate example for a moment, overengineering products, what strategies can people employ to avoid falling into this trap of inattentional blindness?

Well, to avoid falling into the trap of designing products that depend on the nonexistence of inattentional blindness, I guess, I would start by reading our book and becoming more familiar with those ideas and really trying to develop an appreciation of how limited in general, not even just with respect to attention but even beyond how limited in general human cognitive powers are. The cognitive environment that we’re in nowadays is very much more complex than it was over the millennia and even longer when our brains evolved which is great because we have technology that can do all kinds of great stuff for us that we could never do before. We have forms of entertainment, we have ways of pursuing creativity and so on that didn’t exist. That’s all great but our intuitions are not really adapted well to that, so the product designer or the designer of a website or of anything really, I think, anything that you’re designing, really you want to have a really clear understanding of the limitations and the foibles of human cognitive architecture to be a successful product, and there’s two sides to that coin, right? One side might be understanding what people find rewarding and what will motivate them and then exploiting that to death which you can argue social media and certain games and so on do, like casinos and so on, but then the positive side of it would be understanding people’s limitations and the cognitive traps they’ll fall into in trying to help navigate around those. I don’t think I have any magic bullet for that. There’s a whole science of this that’s maturing over time and the solution, I think, is just to include people on your team for example who have expertise in that and pay attention to them when they say, ‘You better watch out about this thing.’ Even if it’s a really cool type of technological thing you can do, it’s not necessarily always the best thing to do.

Yeah, and in the book, Chris, The Invisible Gorilla, you talked about that as a first way that our intuition deceives us then there are five other ways. Now, one of them, maybe we can just touch on another one because I know you’ve done some work recently on it, the challenges of confidence and overconfidence. Can you maybe just talk a little bit about that and specifically on the new research you’ve done on this subject?

Sure. So, overconfidence is a concept that has a long tradition in psychology and I think it’s also well known to the general public nowadays, certainly when we talk about sports and so on we sometimes talk about overconfidence. Really as a cognitive bias or a cognitive illusion, there are two parts to confidence. One is overconfidence in one’s self, in one’s own abilities, in one’s own skills, in one’s own intelligence, and the other part is overinterpreting or overvaluing the confidence that other people express. So, we have a natural tendency to associate confidence with skill, knowledge, accuracy and all those things that we really want. Usually, we don’t just want confident people, we want people who actually know what they’re doing but we associate confidence with knowing what you’re doing, and it turns out there is a positive association there, right? So, people who know what they’re doing generally are more likely to think they know what they’re doing and to say they know what they’re doing but it’s not as perfect a correlation as we would want. So, in cases where you really want to make sure that you’re dealing with someone who knows what they’re talking about, like an eyewitness testifying in a criminal trial, you don’t want to pay too much attention to confidence and overvalue that as a signal. You want to guard against that bias of paying too much attention to confident people, or let’s say in a group when you’re picking a leader, it’s often good to have a confident leader but sometimes the people who will volunteer themselves, and who will do a lot of talking, and who will try to take the lead are not necessarily the ones who are most qualified or most expert, so those are times when it’s good to pay attention to that. Getting back to overconfidence in oneself, Dan Simons and Patrick Heck and I recently published a study where we went and asked people sort of a classic question which has been talked about a lot in psychology textbooks and popular books and so on which is the simple question, ‘Do you think you’re more intelligent than the average person?’ and we asked this question because it’s often said that say 90% of people think that they’re smarter than the average person which is intended as an ironic comment on human intelligence because of course, only half of the people can be smarter than average unless the distribution was ridiculously skewed or something which it’s not. So, there’s some collective irrationality or collective illogic if a huge percentage of people think that they’re above average at anything. So, we went and asked people and the novelty of our study really was no one had really actually done this for about 50 years or so, and we asked a representative sample of people. So, if you go and ask college students or graduate students or professionals, ‘Do you think you’re more intelligent than the average person?’ well, they wouldn’t be wrong to say, ‘Yes’, because generally people who get more education and people who have professional careers do score higher on any kind of test of intelligence than the average person, that’s part of how they got those jobs, they were qualified, they had the ability. So, we asked a representative sample of people and we found that even in a representative sample of people, whether you pull them on the telephone or on the internet, and this was Americans but I don’t think it would really be that much different for most other countries, even on a representative sample of people about 65% of them think they’re above average and only something like 23% think they’re below average, so it’s almost like a 3:1 ratio between the number who think they’re above average and the number who think they’re below average. So, there is there is a lot of overconfidence out there. We can’t say who’s the overconfident person, right, because half the people are above average, so this doesn’t really pinpoint it for any one person, but I think it does verify this longstanding observation people have made that we generally tend to be overconfident about our own abilities, and then there’s a separate question whether that’s good or bad.

Yeah, and I think in the book you talk about group decision making processes in the US government where typically, I guess, the leaders or the further up the hierarchy you go the more confident people tend to be, and I think they were sharing estimates of potential outcome and the way they processed this was going in descending order of seniority. I mean, that struck me as a rather naive way of making decisions but that’s something that you’ve encountered and seen in the workplace?

Well, this was particularly a story that was told to us by someone we were interviewing. We did a project a long time ago that I was involved in where we interviewed various people in the intelligence community of the US government. So, the intelligence agencies like the CIA and the State Departments and Intelligence Agency and so on, and we were just asking about group decision processes that they had witnessed and someone volunteered this anecdote and obviously it stuck with me ever since then, it’s starting with the most senior person and going down in seniority in offering opinions, estimates, ideas or whatever is probably the worst way that you could go about maximizing the contributions of people in the entire group, and I find myself…you know, for a long time I didn’t really have anyone who worked for me. I was a professor in an undergraduate college so no one really works for us there but more recently I now am involved in running a lab where we have some postdoctoral fellows and a research assistant and so on, and we have these group meetings and we talk, and I do find myself trying to be aware of not speaking too soon because the sooner the top guy speaks, the quicker everyone else is going to fall in line and start drawing all kinds of social inferences and use our powerful ability, and social intelligence, and social inference to figure out, ‘What are we supposed to be saying? What is politically correct?’ in the classical sense of political correctness, right, where it meant following the line that the people in charge want to follow, not when it meant being liberal or something like that, but when it meant figuring out what’s the correct way to get ahead in an organization as opposed to the way to do the right thing, or the most innovative, or the best thing for customers and so on. So, you really want to guard against that because expressing too much confidence, prematurely closing discussion, putting the leader’s opinion out there first can really backfire, I think.

Yeah. I mean, you used an interesting word and you use it in the book as you’re summarizing, around the need to pause and look at the world differently and I guess when you say pause, or stop yourself from volunteering an opinion too quickly, what you’re really doing is you’re interrupting that pattern and you’re creating some space perhaps for different cognitive processes to kick in and then to explore the world perhaps from slightly different angles, right?

Yes, I think that’s really crucial, but I think it’s pretty hard because it goes back to the old problem in brain science of, ‘Where’s the controller?’ Like, if I know that I’m supposed to pause and not do something, well what’s going to make me pause? How do I make sure that I always pause, right, because we’re talking about processes that are on autopilot, they just sort of tend to run, that’s the way the brain works, right? You’ve got all kinds of parts of your brain doing stuff and how do you learn to exhibit and exercise conscious control of that, and there’s certainly research going on about this topic that I’m not an expert in, so I don’t want to pretend that I know everything about cognitive psychology and neuroscience and so on. So, people sort of work on these problems, but in my personal experience it’s been more a matter of just gradually over time developing the habit of noticing when one of these cognitive illusions or a cognitive bias is likely to be affecting you. It’s pattern recognition. One analogy you might think about is let’s say you go to a foreign country and you’re walking around a city that you haven’t been to before, and even there you may have a certain sense even though it’s not your home country, haven’t been there before, you might have a sense when you’re wandering into a more dangerous neighborhood or where things might be getting more dangerous or something like that, so I think at the same time also that’s sort of done by pattern recognition, and sometimes you can be wrong or you can be biased or whatever but it’s a matter of pattern recognition and learning things gradually over time, and it’s the same thing in the cognitive environment. So, the analogy might be like figuring out when you’re in a dangerous cognitive neighborhood and you might be about to jump to a conclusion, or speak before you ought to, or express too much confidence, all those things you just have to, I think, develop a habit of noticing, and seeing examples of other people doing it, reading books about this stuff and so on, I think it only helps but it’s a slow process. There’s no magic bullet like I said.

Yeah, and since the work was done, as you said at the beginning there’s many years of history behind the gorilla work, but you also touched on the world of social media and technology which has accelerated. How would you characterize a sort of evolution of the riskiness of this space, and by that, I mean the reality that we’re more and more likely to be caught out by some of these blindnesses? Is it getting harder and harder to practice these habits of yours to pause or are you quite confident that this stuff can be overcome purely by being aware of what’s going at the individual level?

Well, I think it’s theoretically possible that people could develop that discipline to always be mindful of the limitations on their attention and to never do things that would overtax them, but I think that’s only really a theoretical possibility because there’s something baked into the structure of the mind that, A, we inherently underestimate or overestimate our capabilities for attention and noticing, and I think we also overestimate our abilities for self-control. So, what’s going on with smartphones is it’s not that smartphones are rewiring our brain, or decreasing our ability to pay attention or anything like that, I think our ability to pay attention is the same as it’s always been which is to say not that great, and what the smartphone does especially in a context like driving and so on is it gives you all kinds of other incentives to pick it up and use it. So, it used to be just an ordinary cell phone, you could talk on the phone while you’re driving but that’s only one use for the thing, but now you can also text, you can check the weather, you can play games, you can do an infinite number of possible things, so it’s really a powerful incentive or it’s a powerful stimulus that’s trying to absorb our attention. So, in order to defeat that you may need things like pre-commitment, like putting the thing in the trunk while you’re driving, put it in the back seat so that the maps function can interface with your car and you can use the maps which are incredibly helpful and useful but you can’t use texting or anything else, or have a mode on the phone so that automatically it goes into that mode when you get into the car. So, external nudges and technological aids to self-control, I think, are crucial. You can’t just do it by force of will. I mean, maybe, theoretically you can but you shouldn’t rely on it.

Now, at the organizational level we had a great example earlier in the year of some of the perils specifically of unconscious bias in Philadelphia in Starbucks and I know you’ve done some work on this recently, you wrote an article, I think, in The New York Times or Wall Street Journal about the potential efficacy of Starbucks anti-bias training. I’d be fascinated in your view on how likely is that training to really make a difference and address some of the challenges that caused such a huge outcry, I think in Philadelphia, what was it, in March or April earlier this year?

Yeah, earlier this year there was an incident at a Starbucks coffee shop in Philadelphia not that far from where I live. As I recall I think two African-American men were in the store and the store manager called the police who removed them because they weren’t eating anything, they weren’t being customers, they were just sort of sitting in there and they said they were waiting for someone and they were going to meet their friend and have a meeting and so on, and as usual there were cell phone videos. Another great thing cellphones let people do is document things that are happening in the world that went undocumented before which creates its own set of issues that may be for another conversation, but as a result of all this outcry about this as it was of one of those national stories for a few days, Starbucks took the, I think, fairly radical step of saying they were going to close all their stores which is like 8000 company-owned stores with something like 200,000 employees in total for an afternoon to do anti-bias training. Basically, they diagnosed the issue as being one of some kinds of racial bias or other bias among their employees, and probably partly for well-motivated reasons and partly for some public relations benefit they decided to have everybody undergo anti-bias training, and I think that that’s probably a common response to this kind of thing, and if you look in the news you can find other companies where similar things have happened and they have decided to give training to all their employees, and I think it’s sort of a common response to think, ‘Well, if we just train people then this will stop,’ and training people is harder than it seems. I can say as someone who’s had the attention of hundreds or thousands of undergraduates over the years for many, many, many hours they don’t always come out of that lengthy process knowing what you want them to know and acting how you want them to act and so on, so even a one afternoon training which is actually a pretty intensive training for a big company, training line employees who are out in a retail environment not just sitting at their desks where they have plenty of time to do training courses and so, I mean that’s a huge commitment, and the thing that we pointed out in our in our article was that it was going to be a giant missed opportunity for Starbucks because while we often believe that training can solve problems, we don’t really know what the best methods are or whether any of them really work, and here Starbucks was going to have 200,000 people do these training courses. What they could have done is run an experiment and tried different versions of training to see if one of them was more effective than the other or even tried a group that didn’t get any training because we often fail to realize that you have to have a proper comparison group in order to see whether what you’re doing even works, and this is a giant blind spot in in human nature but also in the world of business as well and it really sort of interacts with all the things we’ve talked about. If you’ve got a confident leader and they’re presented with a solution that looks good on its face, training, anti-bias training, that’s a thing, we’ll do it for everybody, and they say, ‘We’re going to go ahead and do it,’ you can fail to think about the possibility that it doesn’t actually work, and we have technology that was invented about 200 years ago, people invented the randomized experiment and you can actually do randomized experiments at this scale. It would have been the best experiment ever on anti-bias training at in terms of the number of people involved. You know, when college professors do social science experiments we don’t have 200,000 people, we’re lucky if we get 2000 people and sometimes 200 or less is what we have. Starbucks could have really not only trained its people and probably trained them better because they figured out which training worked the best and they could just give that to everybody in a future way but they would have told all the rest of us a lot about how to solve this problem, and instead, they sort hired a lot of consultants, they designed a curriculum and they implemented it, and maybe it worked, maybe it didn’t, there’s really no way of knowing because they didn’t think about what knowledge do they really have, what knowledge don’t they have, are we being overconfident about this, are we rushing to make decisions, and so on. It’s sort of like a cocktail of cognitive illusions if you will.

Yeah, and that’s one of the things, I mean, I’ve got the opportunity to say this and I was hoping I would but your book is very much a science-based book and the scientific method comes out throughout the book and also in some of your other materials, and I love the fact that this quote from one of my favorite books, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I think, let me just read this out because I think it’s very, very important in the context of what you just talked about the Starbucks: ‘The real purpose of scientific method is to make sure nature hasn’t misled you into thinking you know something that you actually don’t.’ And I guess what you’re saying is that maybe the Starbucks HR team have been misled by that as well, right?

Yeah, I don’t know if it was nature that misled them or nature in sort of a larger sense. It’s sort of human nature and the nature of the social world we’re in right now but I think you could say so and it’s, not to be too punny, but it’s natural to be misled in that way because thinking about what experiment can I run, what’s the control condition, and so on, those are not things that come naturally to us, even if we’re trained in science, it’s really a way of thinking that you…and I think thankfully it’s actually becoming more common in business and organizations. Like internet companies take the lead. They do A/B testing just like advertising firms used to do a long time ago and people are doing A/B testing or randomized experiments of social interventions of various kinds, educational programs, and even public policy intervention, so I think this idea is gradually spreading and it’ll spread more and more over time and it should, and Starbucks, unfortunately, found themselves in a place where they could have made a huge contribution to this and for whatever reason they didn’t.

And I’m curious, did you get any feedback from them about this article in The Wall Street Journal or not?

I got zero feedback from them. I have to say I was not expecting any. I would have said there was maybe a 10% chance that I would hear from someone at Starbucks. They did engage with other social scientists I had heard who were regarded as more experts on racial bias and things like that but not with us, and the people they did engage with I think probably told them similar things, that they have an opportunity to do an experiment and so on and so on, so they were probably hearing it from more than one person and just decided not to.

Yeah. Got it, got it. So, Chris, time is marching on. Love to just get your answers to the three questions that I sent out earlier. First one being, what have you changed your mind about recently?

So, that is a great question, and as I thought about it I realized that I had a very hard time thinking about something I’d changed my mind about recently that was not just very trivial or very specialized. You know, like, I decided one of my favorite chess openings was not as good as it really was but doesn’t really help anyone. And reflecting on this question made me think that changing one’s mind is maybe sort of a slow process, and my father changed his political affiliation at age 90, so it may take a long time to really evolve your thinking in significant ways but I guess one thing I sort of maybe have changed my mind about…I guess I’ll give you two quick things. I think one I’m realizing in the last couple of years, that maybe there’s more corruption in the world than I thought. I guess one always is aware of corruption and awful things that go on from people in power, but it often seems like it’s far away and maybe there’s more corruption around it than I realize. I sort of feel bad about that, but, another thing, I think I used to think more highly of the concept of ideology than I do. So, an ideology is like a belief system and I used to think, ‘Well it’s pretty good because a belief system is sort of like a summary, like a convenient way of summarizing one’s views and it’s a reference point and so on,’ but I think maybe ideology is a worse thing than I used to think, so I think I’ve changed my mind about that, and what you really want to do I think in order to make good decisions, and succeed at whatever you try to do is really sort of shed the ideological skin and take conscious steps to notice when you are saying things just because they fit in with some consistent ideology or some common set of beliefs or something like that, and try to think about, ‘Could this thing I’ve believed for a long time actually be wrong or could there be more sides to it?’ or something like that.

Yeah, which obviously takes an enormous amount of work?

Well, yeah. If you really were going to sit down and try to do that someday, when would you ever finish, right? So, I think like I said before about being aware of when cognitive illusions might be bedeviling you, it’s more a matter of steadily trying to notice your own reactions to things and notice what you’re saying to other people. Sometimes it becomes more apparent when it comes out of your mouth than when it’s just inside your head, so I think maybe paying attention to what you say to other people about politics and ideology and just things you have strong beliefs in and so on. You know, sometimes they sound weird when they come out of your mouth and you never even thought about it before. So, that maybe is a way of keeping track of that.

Great. Second question – where do you go to get fresh perspectives to stay innovative and creative?

Okay, so another great question, and I guess there’s sort of a concrete answer which is, I could recommend some authors and sources and so on, which I’m happy to do. Everybody should read Phil Tetlock’s book, Superforecasting, and Duncan Watts book called Everything Is Obvious. Those are two of my favorites about opening your mind to better ways of thinking, but more generally than that I think it’s really important especially nowadays at least in the US and I think the same is probably true in Europe and maybe in a lot of the world, it’s really important to make sure that you have friends, acquaintances, associates who have different perspectives because obviously people are very influenced by what they come into contact every day and people are very influenced by their friends and the people they hang around with, so it’s important to resist the urge to disaffiliate with people who you disagree with, right? You have to try to be careful to be able to maintain the idea that, ‘I don’t really agree with that person. He or she supports something that I really disagree with,’ and not take the additional step of literally unfriending them on Facebook or unfollowing them on Twitter, or metaphorically unfriending them, that is disliking them because you disagree with them on some political or ideological point. So, along the same line, in the US you should really watch all three news networks on TV not just your favorite one, you should read The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, and the Washington Post and so on, you should hang around maybe with more people who are from foreign countries, or go and spend more time in a foreign country. All of these things are important I think for what you’re saying, and I can’t say that any of them are foolproof, but I think especially nowadays, it’s so easy to curate yourself to death where you’re only seeing a certain kind of thing. You’ve got to curate yourself out of that problem.

And the way you answer that suggests…I mean, that’s the intellectual sort of rational story, but how effective are you at doing that? Do you watch all three channels? Have you managed to burst your echo chamber and let in other voices or is it still a work in progress?

Well, I feel as though I have. It’s obviously always a work in progress because you could be watching some news channel and think like, ‘These guys are so ridiculous, I can’t stand them,’ and just turn it and not go back, so it’s kind of like resisting the temptation to pick up the phone while you’re driving. You’ve got to resist the temptation to unfriend and ignore what you disagree with. I actually think I’m pretty good at it and I don’t want to deceive myself, I don’t want to, I shouldn’t deceive myself-

Don’t get overconfident on it.

Maybe it’s because my own views are sort of like a mix, so maybe it makes sense to me to sample from everything, and I’ve published articles in The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times so I should probably read both of them just as a matter of professional adaptation, but I think I’m pretty good at it, and one reason is that I sort of, and probably most people are like this, probably nothing special about me, but I feel like I’ve acquired friends and acquaintances from a variety of different places like there’s college then for me there’s the world of chess because I play a lot of chess at least I used to and I follow chess a lot so chess players are sort of a little bit different from other people, then there’s that world of academia where you’ve got many left-wing but also very intelligent people, and there’s people from work and so on, so I think I’m pretty good at it but I think that we can all do better.

Yeah, and finally, Chris, what’s your most significant failure or low? What have you learned from it and how have you applied that learning?

Yeah, this was actually the easiest one, although I could have come up with the wrong answer, but it was really easy because in college I took a course in physics, my second year of college I think, and I literally failed the course, so my significant failure was literally failing a college course, and I think at Harvard University at the time the failing grade was called E instead of F because Harvard does everything different, and what I learned from that was, well, I’m not very good at physics, and I wound up taking psychology courses, and my undergraduate major was in computer science but I took a bunch of psychology courses and I found that I was pretty good at cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience and wound up doing that for the rest of my time. I think the more general point is not just avoid courses where you failed the previous course, avoid physics if you failed physics. I think the more general point is that some of the advice that’s given especially to American college students, I don’t know how prevalent it is elsewhere in the world, but some of the advice that’s given about what the point of college is I think is wrong, and a lot of colleges are marketed by saying, ‘Come to our college and find your passion. Find what you really love,’ and I think the advice should be find what you’re really good at, and use the opportunity to find what you’re good at and then keep on doing that and a lot of the time you will eventually wind up loving it, because the better you get at something, the greater your understanding is, the more rewarding that thing can be and you sort of open up new levels of performance and achievement, and it’s really wonderful to be great at something and understand it well. There are a lot of things I’m passionate about or at least I used to be. I used to love astrophysics. I thought that was fascinating stuff, how stars form and how old the galaxy is and all that stuff, but for whatever reason I just wasn’t that good at it, maybe my math wasn’t good enough or whatever but I got out of that line of work and I think that’s really the best way to go is find out what you’re good at and then push that. Don’t give up your hobbies but don’t pretend your hobbies always have to be your whole life.

Yeah, and of course as you get better at it you become more confident and therefore you’re able to get edified in society as well as a result of that confidence as per what you said earlier on, right?

Yeah, and often becoming really good at something gives you a lens with which to view other topics. So, maybe psychology is sort of special in this way but if you become good at psychology you can apply psychological thinking to a lot of other areas which is what I’ve tried to do and what Dan and I tried to do in the book, but the same would be true of economics, it would be true of any kind of science, of philosophy and so on. There’s so many benefits.

We had a guy called Robert Hagstrom on the program a few months ago, he wrote a book called Latticework which is all around using different disciplines such as biology, and psychology, and literature, and philosophy to look at making investments in the stock market. So, this came out of Charlie Munger’s thinking, so yeah, that’s very focused on the financial markets but he uses that approach, and what was fascinating, Chris, I asked him the question around what advice for children, or people, what kind of career advice he said, ‘Psychology is such a powerful way of thinking about the world. The mental models within psychology is so valuable in all walks of life.’

I think that’s clearly true because we’re people, we’re in a world of people, there are increasing numbers of people, and people are interacting more than ever before via social media and so on, so understanding people is never going to go out of business, and it really is in some ways like a hub scientific discipline. You know, psychology is really sort of at the center of a lot of other areas, you’ve got genetics and biology, and so on, you’ve got social sciences, even philosophy and so on are relevant. So, yeah, it’s a great field to pursue but that said I would say the education that people get in psychology I think needs to be broader. People who study psychology, at least let’s say the college level or whatever, they need to be better at math, and they probably need to be better at using computers and so on because obviously we have lots of data and there’s lots of statistical and logical thinking, and understanding human behavior and I think it’s sort of a mistake to just rely on common sense and intuition rather than try to really get a deeper understanding in those areas too.

Yeah, got it. Chris, so where can people get in touch with you and where can people follow you?

They can go and check my website which is just, and on Twitter @cfchabris. Those are probably the best ways and also our book has a Facebook page that we post to pretty often so look at the invisible gorilla on Facebook.

Wonderful, wonderful. Well, thank you very much for your time today. We’ve run over but it’s been a very rich conversation. I love your work and I love the original videos which we use with some of our organizations, and also the book was great and as I say, it was written from a very refreshing angle because it was there was so much science and so much robustness there, so really very grateful for your time and I’m sure this will be a popular show when we put it out, and very thankful for your support.

Well, thanks for having me on and I hope all those kind words you said were accurate and not just overconfident.

Great. Well, have a great day. Thanks very much, Chris.

Thank you.


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