“Know thyself,” the ancient Greeks carved into stone at the temple of Apollo at Delphi. “Man’s got to know his limitations,” Dirty Harry spat as he finished off a corrupt official in Magnum Force. Art, religion, hiring, multi-tasking–ancient Greek, political activist, armchair expert, etc., etc.–the human mind has limitations. For thousands of years humans have suspected that the wonderful sense of control our brains provide us with may not exactly match what is beyond our bodies, that there are limitations, that there are things our brain does, ways it prefers to work that seriously handicap us. But this is not an easy concept to wrap your head around. As Chicolini challenges in Duck Soup: “Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?” Exactly.
You’re probably familiar with the gorilla experiments on selective visual attention that made the authors of this book famous. It got them into many introductory psychology textbooks, onto morning TV talk shows, and even got them an Ig Noble prize. You may have groaned when you learned of this book, thinking it was an attempt to cash in on their 15 minutes of fame. If you did, you need to reassess that gut reaction and give the book a little more of your attention–at least reading the subtitle (And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us), or better yet the table of contents, which you can preview at the book’s site or at Amazon.com. Because the best thing about this book is that it is about much much more than visual attention. As funny as the gorilla experiment is, the novelty of the experiment wears off pretty quickly and there is not much there for the authors to explain away when the gorilla turns to the camera and takes his mask off. The authors were wise to expand the focus of this book–and you really can’t appreciate this until after you’ve read the first hamfisted chapter dealing with selective visual attention. It is a strain. Several stories are manipulated to illustrate their point, some of them of dubious value (in particular the story of the collision of the USS Greeneville and the Ehime Maru in 2001 involved much more than just Commander Scott Waddle not seeing something he wasn’t expecting through his telescope). At the end of the first chapter, I was ready to put the book down. I’m glad I didn’t.
The next chapters deal with similar but more interesting limitations humans have with illusions of memory, confidence, knowledge, cause, and potential, all of which help to form our intuitions, those feelings that we understand and know or can do something which we often really don’t or can’t. In these later chapters there are some wonderful stories, interesting descriptions of relevant experiments and careful explanations about what the field knows (that is, has shown in experiments and replicated enough times to suggest it is likely true), and suspects (that is, some limited experiments have indicated). The authors are very careful with what they say, debunking popular nonsense, and helping to train readers to be more careful and more skeptical themselves with what they hear and read in the media.
And that is ultimately the benefit you gain from reading this book, something that I recommend. You come away with a deeper knowledge of yourself, the illusions and limitations of our brains, the weaknesses of memory, and the horrifying tendency our brains have to jump to conclusions of cause, potential, and understanding. You gain a better appreciation for why people act the way they do and ultimately a little doubt tripwire forms, one in line with the authors’ hopes that we consider other possibilities before we “jump to harsher conclusions.”