Remember the Famous Invisible Gorilla Experiment? The Same Thing Can Happen With Sound

If you’ve ever been in an introductory psychology class you’ve undoubtedly seen the gorilla video from Daniel Simons’ and Christopher Chabis’ famous experiment. If you’ve never see it (spoiler alert), the 25-second video shows a group of people throwing balls back and forth, and subjects (or students) are asked to count how many times the balls bounce. About halfway through the video a person in a gorilla suit walks on screen, pauses in the middle to beat his chest, and then walks off. Many people never notice it, thereby demonstrating what Simons and Chabis called “inatentional blindness” — the tendency to miss something in plain sight if you’re focused on something else.

A new study by Polly Dalton and Nick Fraenkel finds that this blindness can also occur with sound (i.e. deafness). The researchers had subjects listen to a 69 second audio clip of four people preparing for a party. (You can hear the clip here.) In the recording, two women wrapped presents and two men prepared food and drink, but at one point one of the men repeatedly exclaimed “I’m a gorilla.” The majority of partipants who were instructed to listen to the men noticed the odd statement, but fewer than a third of the participants who were instructed to listen to the women noticed anything out of the ordinary.

Obviously the study is of immense importance because psychology professors now have one more neat thing with which to wow their students, but I also wonder whether the study tells us something about the role our perceptual systems can play in enhancing the outcomes produced by motivated reasoning. When something we don’t agree with enters our minds we’re good as discounting it, but what if something we don’t agree with never even enters our minds in the first place because we fail to “hear” it?

Even when a single person is talking, we must still choose to pay attention to them. In the experiment subjects were instructed to listen to the men or women, but in everyday life our brains instruct us to focus on things based on our interests and desires. If the person we’re listening to isn’t saying what we want to hear (like the men for subjects instructed to listen to the women), perhaps our brains instruct us to focus on other thoughts and thus make us marginally more “deaf” to whatever the person is saying. In other words, if the man in the experiment was talking about how people die because they can’t afford health insurance instead of saying “I’m a gorilla,” would there be more “deafness” among staunch small-government conservatives? Whereas people in the experiment didn’t hear the men because the experimenters told them to focus on the women, the conservatives would hypothetically be more likely to miss the healthcare information because their brains are always telling them to focus on small government ideas. (That’s my attempt at creating an exaggerated example for the purpose of illustrating an idea.)

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Dalton, P. & Fraenkel, N. (2012). Gorillas we have missed: Sustained inattentional deafness for dynamic events Cognition DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2012.05.012

One Response to Remember the Famous Invisible Gorilla Experiment? The Same Thing Can Happen With Sound

  1. Pingback: Undead Astronauts » Hearing is believing

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