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The Invisible Gorilla

July 13th, 2010 · Posted by Skuds in Life · No Comments · Life

I read a lot of books in the last month or two, mainly re-reading all thirteen Christopher Brookmyre novels, but also reading some new Amazon Vine books, leaving me with a bit of a backlog of reviews to write.

First off is The Invisible Gorilla by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, one of those popular psychology/behavioural economics books in the mould of Malcolm Gladwell or Dan Ariely. Here is what I wrote:

This may be the scariest book I have read for a long time.  The theme is about the way our instincts may not be as dependable as we expect.  Some of that is totally unsurprising, like the idea that we may not notice quite blatant things if we are not looking for them, but it soon gets more relevant.

The book starts with a description of a famous experiment by the authors where test subjects failed to spot a man in a gorilla suit in a video of a basketball game.  Very interesting but hardly relating to real-life I thought, but then the book gets a bit scary, with details of the follow-up experiments showing how the same effect applies to drivers not noticing cyclists and motorcyclists

The next scare is the exposure of the false sense of safety you can get from hands-free kits for mobile phones in cars and how they distract a driver as much as holding a handset.  I sort of suspected that anyway, but its still a worry to see experiments supporting the idea.

The real scary part for me was the section about the reliability of witnesses. Drawing from some examples of legal cases and psychology experiments it completely undermined my faith in the whole idea of trials, making it all too easy to see how false convictions can be made. The book is worth reading just for that chapter alone.

So I’m scared to be on the roads, knowing how distracted everyone is, and more than a bit worried that if I was ever accused of something I didn’t do my chances of getting off are not as great as I would expect.

However, hiding indoors enjoying my memories doesn’t seem to be an option either, since the book makes a plausible case for those memories not being anywhere near as accurate as they feel.  Truly nostaliga ain’t what it used to be.

OK, I’m exaggerating, but not completely. The book is extremely thought-provoking and follows a well laid-out structure: proposing a sort of theory, breaking it into several topics and then tacking each in order. For a book that makes me so uneasy, I found it extremely easy to read, whipping through it at the sort of pace I normally only manage with thrillers.

Anyone who enjoyed the Freakonomics books or those by Malcolm Gladwell or Dan Ariely is almost guaranteed to like this one too.

Overall verdict: not as iconic as the Tipping Point or the Long Tail, better than Superfreakonomics and with a better premise than Blink or Outliers.

Remember Hilary Clinton’s well-publicised campaign-derailing claim about visiting somewhere and having to duck from sniper fire at the airport, when newsreel footage showed that she arrived in one piece meeting and greeting on the runway?   Like many people I thought that if this wasn’t a blatant lie it was a sign of severe delusion.  This book explains how easily we could all make similar mistakes, and probably do.

It is one thing not trusting everyone around you, but when you realise that you can’t trust yourself, you do start to wonder…

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