Saturday, July 21, 2018

Uh Oh: Humans Might Not Be Blind to the Obvious and Why It Matters

The writer teaches strategy at Oxford and does quite a bit of other stuff too. He seems pretty sharp excepting maybe the blockchain strategy course. Who knows though, maybe all the time and neurons and pixels folks have invested into blockchain will amount to something.

On to what's before us: This piece is an eye-opener, so to speak.

From Aeon, July 5:

The fallacy of obviousness 
A new interpretation of a classic psychology experiment will change your view of perception, judgment – even human nature
Scientific experiments don’t generally attract widespread attention. But the ‘Gorillas in Our Midst’ (1999) experiment of visual attention by the American psychologists Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris has become a classic. In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman highlights this experiment and argues that it reveals something fundamental about the human mind, namely, that humans are ‘blind to the obvious, and that we also are blind to our blindness’. Kahneman’s claim captures much of the current zeitgeist in the cognitive sciences, and arguably even provides a defining slogan of behavioural economics: in turn, as the economist Steven Levitt put it, ‘that one sentence summarises a fundamental insight’ about the life’s work of Kahneman himself. The notion of prevalent human blindness also fuels excitement about artificial intelligence (AI), especially its capacity to replace flawed and error-prone human judgment. 
But are humans truly blind to the obvious? Recent research suggests otherwise. It suggests that this claim – so important to much of the cognitive sciences, behavioural economics, and now AI – is wrong. So, how could such an influential claim get it so wrong?

Let’s start with a careful look at Simons and Chabris’s classic experiment, and see how it might suggest something different, and more positive, about human nature. In the experiment, subjects were asked to watch a short video and to count the basketball passes. The task seemed simple enough. But it was made more difficult by the fact that subjects had to count basketball passes by the team wearing white shirts, while a team wearing black shirts also passed a ball. This created a real distraction. (If you haven’t taken the test before, consider briefly taking it here before reading any further.)

The experiment came with a twist. While subjects try to count basketball passes, a person dressed in a gorilla suit walks slowly across the screen. The surprising fact is that some 70 per cent of subjects never see the gorilla. When they watch the clip a second time, they are dumbfounded by the fact that they missed something so obvious. The video of the surprising gorilla has been viewed millions of times on YouTube – remarkable for a scientific experiment. Different versions of the gorilla experiment, such as the ‘moonwalking bear’, have also received significant attention.
Now, it’s hard to argue with the findings of the gorilla experiment itself. It’s a fact that most people who watch the clip miss the gorilla. But it does not necessarily follow that this illustrates – as both the study’s authors and Kahneman argue – that humans are ‘blind to the obvious’. A completely different interpretation of the gorilla experiment is possible.

Imagine you were asked to watch the clip again, but this time without receiving any instructions. After watching the clip, imagine you were then asked to report what you observed. You might report that you saw two teams passing a basketball. You are very likely to have observed the gorilla. But having noticed these things, you are unlikely to have simultaneously recorded any number of other things. The clip features a large number of other obvious things that one could potentially pay attention to and report: the total number of basketball passes, the overall gender or racial composition of the individuals passing the ball, the number of steps taken by the participants. If you are looking for them, many other things are also obvious in the clip: the hair colour of the participants, their attire, their emotions, the colour of the carpet (beige), the ‘S’ letters spray-painted in the background, and so forth.

In short, the list of obvious things in the gorilla clip is extremely long. And that’s the problem: we might call it the fallacy of obviousness. There’s a fallacy of obviousness because all kinds of things are readily evident in the clip. But missing any one of these things isn’t a basis for saying that humans are blind. The experiment is set up in such a way that people miss the gorilla because they are distracted by counting basketball passes. Preoccupied with the task of counting, missing the gorilla is hardly surprising. In retrospect, the gorilla is prominent and obvious.

But the very notion of visual prominence or obviousness is extremely tricky to define scientifically, as one needs to consider relevance or, to put differently, obviousness to whom and for what purpose?

To better understand the fallacy of obviousness, and how even such celebrated scientists as Kahneman struggle with it, some additional information is needed. Kahneman’s focus on obviousness comes directly from his background and scientific training in an area called psychophysics.

Psychophysics focuses largely on how environmental stimuli map on to the mind, specifically based on the actual characteristics of stimuli, rather than the characteristics or nature of the mind. From the perspective of psychophysics, obviousness – or as it is called in the literature, ‘salience’ – derives from the inherent nature or characteristics of the environmental stimuli themselves: such as their size, contrast, movement, colour or surprisingness. In his Nobel Prize lecture in 2002, Kahneman calls these ‘natural assessments’. And from this perspective, yes, the gorilla indeed should be obvious to anyone watching the clip. But from that perspective, any number of other things in the clip – as discussed above – should then also be obvious.

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?...