The fallacy of obviousness


So if the gorilla experiment doesn’t illustrate that humans are blind to the obvious, then what exactly does it illustrate? What’s an alternative interpretation, and what does it tell us about perception, cognition and the human mind?

The alternative interpretation says that what people are looking for – rather than what people are merely looking at – determines what is obvious. Obviousness is not self-evident. Or as Sherlock Holmes said: ‘There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.’ This isn’t an argument against facts or for ‘alternative facts’, or anything of the sort. It’s an argument about what qualifies as obvious, why and how. See, obviousness depends on what is deemed to be relevant for a particular question or task at hand. Rather than passively accounting for or recording everything directly in front of us, humans – and other organisms for that matter – instead actively look for things. The implication (contrary to psychophysics) is that mind-to-world processes drive perception rather than world-to-mind processes. The gorilla experiment itself can be reinterpreted to support this view of perception, showing that what we see depends on our expectations and questions – what we are looking for, what question we are trying to answer.

At first glance that might seem like a rather mundane interpretation, particularly when compared with the startling claim that humans are ‘blind to the obvious’. But it’s more radical than it might seem. This interpretation of the gorilla experiment puts humans centre-stage in perception, rather than relegating them to passively recording their surroundings and environments. It says that what we see is not so much a function of what is directly in front of us (Kahneman’s natural assessments), or what one is in camera-like fashion recording or passively looking at, but rather determined by what we have in our minds, for example, by the questions we have in mind. People miss the gorilla not because they are blind, but because they were prompted – in this case, by the scientists themselves – to pay attention to something else. The question – ‘How many basketball passes’ (just like any question: ‘Where are my keys?’) – primes us to see certain aspects of a visual scene, at the expense of any number of other things.

The biologist Jakob von Uexküll (1864-1944) argued that all species, humans included, have a unique ‘Suchbild’ – German for a seek- or search-image – of what they are looking for. In the case of humans, this search-image includes the questions, expectations, problems, hunches or theories that we have in mind, which in turn structure and direct our awareness and attention. The important point is that humans do not observe scenes passively or neutrally. In 1966, the philosopher Karl Popper conducted an informal experiment to make this point. During a lecture at the University of Oxford, he turned to his audience and said: ‘My experiment consists of asking you to observe, here and now. I hope you are all cooperating and observing! However, I feel that at least some of you, instead of observing, will feel a strong urge to ask: “What do you want me to observe?”’ Then Popper delivered his insight about observation: ‘For what I am trying to illustrate is that, in order to observe, we must have in mind a definite question, which we might be able to decide by observation.’

In other words, there is no neutral observation. The world doesn’t tell us what is relevant. Instead, it responds to questions. When looking and observing, we are usually directed toward something, toward answering specific questions or satisfying some curiosities or problems. ‘All observation must be for or against a point of view,’ is how Charles Darwin put it in 1861. Similarly, the art historian Ernst Gombrich in 1956 emphasised the role of the ‘beholder’s share’ in observation and perception.