To Resolve Conflict, Look for Invisible Gorillas

When you’re trying to resolve a conflict, it’s hard to know where the breakthrough will come from.  It might come from anywhere.  Often the least likely place.  And if you’re not attentive, you’ll miss it.  Consider the results of the following research project:

At Harvard, in 1999, two psychologists, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, got interested in the question of selective attention: what we pay attention to, and what we don’t.  So they developed an experiment to investigate it.  Here is the experiment:

They got six college students, three wearing white shirts and three wearing dark blue shirts.  They gave the students a couple of basketballs and instructed them to randomly throw the basketballs to one another for a minute and a half, while they made a video of it.  So the students threw the basketballs.

Then the real experiment started.  The instructors showed the video to a number of test subjects they had selected, and gave them the following instructions:  Watch the video and count how many times the players wearing white pass the basketball.  It doesn’t matter who they throw it to.  Just count the number of times they throw the ball.  But don’t count any of the passes made by people in blue shirts.

After showing the video they then asked the test subjects how many throws the people in white made.  The correct number was fifteen and most of the test subjects got it right.  Then the psychologists asked them if they saw anything else, besides the people throwing the basketball.

In fact there was something else.

About thirty seconds into the video, a person wearing a very realistic gorilla costume, appeared on the right side of the basketball passers, slowly walked through the area where the students were throwing the basketball, and then stopped and faced the camera.  He then beat his chest several times, and then slowly walked the rest of way in front of the camera.  He was on camera a full thirty seconds.

So to return to the question the psychologists asked, “Did you see anything else, besides the people throwing the basketball?”  Fifty percent of the test subjects reported seeing the guy in the gorilla costume.  But the other fifty percent missed the gorilla completely!

It seems impossible that anyone could watch a brief video prominently showing a person in a gorilla costume, and yet completely miss seeing the gorilla!  But that’s exactly what happened.  The actual, repeatable results of this experiment are totally confounding.  You can see the video for yourself online at www.TheInvisibleGorilla.com.

The video and the results of the experiment are so amazing and preposterous that the experiment quickly became famous, and has been the subject of many articles and much study ever since.  It dramatically shows just how easy it is to miss things, even extremely obvious things.

So, if we’re trying to resolve a conflict, we might miss the very thing that provides the key to the resolution.  We might miss “the invisible gorilla.”  Here are four principles to follow to make sure we don’t miss the invisible gorilla:

  •  Just be aware that there might be an “invisible gorilla” somewhere.
  •  Be open and available to things you’re not necessarily looking for, and be open to logic pathways you’re not used to traveling.
  •  Take your time while you’re looking.  Follow the sage advice of the Roman writer Suetonius, “Make haste slowly.”
  •  Never multitask.  The progress you think you’re making when you multitask is an illusion.

Good luck in your search for invisible gorillas!

David Evans

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