Eleven years ago, a gorilla demonstrated that we can miss incredibly obvious things right in front of us if our attention is focused elsewhere. This experiment became world-famous - but people still aren't any better at expecting the unexpected.
Before we get to the new experiment, let's go back to the original. Watch the video and follow the instructions (you don't need to have the sound on):
It's quite likely that a lot of you were already aware of what's really going on in that video. The study, undertaken in 1999 by psychologists Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris, tested the concept of "inattentional blindness", where people miss objects in plain sight because they have been told to pay attention to something else. It might seem difficult to believe, but a full 50% of the original study's participants didn't notice the gorilla at all, and the two psychologists concluded that attention plays a much bigger role in perception than had previously been thought.
Now, more than a decade later, Simons has returned with a sequel to his original experiment. Once again, play the video and follow the instructions, although obviously be on the lookout for any tricks he might have up his sleeve:
How did you do this time? I managed to notice the disappearing player but totally missed the curtain changing color. That apparently places me in fairly elite company - in this experiment, only 17% of people who were familiar with the original video were able to notice one or both of the unexpected events. On the other hand, 29% of those who hadn't heard of the first experiment managed to notice one of the other events. Simons says that's not a statistically significant difference, so although one can't say that people who are expecting the unexpected are worse at noticing the utterly unexpected, it's definitely true that prior awareness doesn't make them any better.
Simons explains the two possible outcomes of the experiment:
"You can make two competing predictions. Knowing about the invisible gorilla might increase your chances of noticing other unexpected events because you know that the task tests whether people spot unexpected events. You might look for other events because you know that the experimenter is up to something. [Alternatively,] knowing about the gorilla might lead viewers to look for gorillas exclusively, and when they find one, they might fail to notice anything else out of the ordinary."
It definitely appears that the second prediction was the correct one. But why? Simons suggests:
"The main finding is that knowing that unexpected events might occur doesn't prevent you from missing unexpected events. People who are familiar with the purpose and conclusions of the original study – that people can miss obvious events when focused on something else – still miss other obvious events in exactly that same context. Even when they know that the experimenter is going to fool them, they can miss something that's obvious, something that they could spot perfectly well if they knew it was there."
Although this has a lot of fascinating things to say about human perception and the way we interact with our mind, let's remember what's really exciting about this experiment. I seriously cannot wait to see what kind of crazy shit he puts in his next gorilla video in 2021. It's my most anticipated sequel this side of Batman 3.