Archive for May 7th, 2007|Daily archive page

Card tricks, Gorilla suits and 24

First a card trick, watch closely and tell ask yourself if you see the trick –

Get it?

Cognitive scientists have long known that people are fairly resistant to seeing things they don’t expect. This is an excellent example of how focusing attention in one thing often leads to poor cognitive realisation.

The James Gorman in the New York Times described what is perhaps the best example, not cards gorillas,

The woman in the gorilla suit is something else again.

I’m referring, of course, to the 1999 video known (to those in the know) as the “opaque gorilla video,” which is used in numerous studies of how people fail to see what is right in front of them. It is only 75 seconds long.

Six people, three in light clothes, three in dark, weave around and pass two basketballs, white clothes to white clothes and dark to dark.

In the middle of the video a woman (scientific reports have specified the gender of the hidden human) in a gorilla suit walks calmly through the group, stops briefly to pound her chest — although not in a very noticeable way — and then continues walking out of the video frame.
[Test subjects] consume what may or may not be alcohol. They are told what they are drinking, but sometimes they are told the truth and sometimes not. So really, nobody has a clue, except the bartender.
Afterward, they are asked if they saw the gorilla. Only 18 percent of the people drinking alcohol noticed the gorilla, which is the point of the paper by Dr. Clifasefi and colleagues. But what caught my eye was that only 46 percent of the sober people saw the gorilla.

Apparently this is a well-known phenomenon known as “inattentional blindness.” [My emphasis]

Think about ethics here. Issues abound.

The first is obvious and has been exploited by pickpockets and con-artists for centuries. When someone is distracted, you can do almost anything. Thus the person bumping into you on the subway or asking for directions on the street or simply stopping is an excellent way for people to steal you blind. Right before your eyes.

This has led cognitive scientists to warn about how memories can be incorrect. If you add the idea that you can subsequently change what people remember (cognitive scientists stop at nothing to confuse people), then testimony in almost any trial becomes less convincing. This leads to juries placing more and more faith in a CSI kind of investigation. This adds uncertainty to uncertainty. Better lawyers know how to exploit this in a system that focuses not on fact finding, but on proving guilt or generating a reasonable amount of uncertainty.

Finally, if you didn’t notice the colors changing for the card tricks, imagine how easy it is to move the intellectual goal posts on something you can’t even see. While America watched American Idol or 24, can you change something in the dialog; some moral compass heading?

Case in point. The majority – that’s right the majority – of American soldiers reject the idea that Iraqi civilians should be treated with dignity and respect. A third felt torture was acceptable. From the BBC,

The survey, by an army mental health advisory team, sampled more than 1,700 soldiers and Marines between August and October 2006.

It examined their views towards torture and the Iraqi civilian population.

A Pentagon official said the survey had looked under every rock and what was found was not always easy to look at.

The Pentagon survey found that less than half the troops in Iraq thought Iraqi civilians should be treated with dignity and respect.

More than a third believed that torture was acceptable if it helped save the life of a fellow soldier or if it helped get information about the insurgents. [my emphasis]

You might think this is just BBC propaganda. Leftist media spinning otherwise innocent comments. From the report itself (PDF, pg 35),

Soldiers and Marines are fairly similar in their attitudes toward the treatment of non-combatants and insurgents. Only 47% of Soldiers and only 38% of Marines agreed that non-combatants should be treated with dignity and respect. Well over a third of Soldiers and Marines reported torture should be allowed, whether to save the life of a fellow Soldier or Marine(41% and 44%, respectively) or to obtain important information about insurgents(36% and 39% respectively).

So while you were watching 24, the moral center of the American Military shifted. It changed to black. Did you notice the change?

Were you paying attention or were YOU distracted?

(Hat Tip: Phil Plait/Bad Astronomer for the cardtricks and Aryeh Harif/YouThinkLeft )