March 19th, 2010

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How Do You Not See A Man In A Gorrilla Suit?

I had heard of this experiment done. But I had not really believed how thoroughly it worked until I saw it with my own eyes.

I have been in training the last few days (and one last one today). Yesterday had "Why Bad Presentations Happened to Good Causes," which was an excellent class. (I should add that while there is a lot of crap training out there, the training over the last two days by Spitfire on strategic communications has been consistently excellent.) As part of the class, the presenter was making a point about people's ability to absorb information. He had a clip projected of two "teams" of 3 in a circle. One team wore white shirts, the other black. Each team had a basketball. The instructor said: "OK, for this 2 minute clip, I want you to count to yourselves how many times the White Team passes to itself."

He starts the clip. I begin counting. And about 1 minute in, I see a man in a gorilla suit walk into the middle of the circle from stage right, wave at the camera, and walk off camera stage left. Another 30 seconds and the clip ended (I got a count of 17 passes).

I bit my tongue, as there could be several points the instructor wanted to make here. The instructor then said: "OK, how many passes?" Most said 17, a few said 18, a few 15 or 16. The instructor then said: "How many of you did not see the gorilla?" No one raised their hand, but there was puzzled muttering. "How many are asking 'what gorilla?'"

In a room of about 30 people, only two other people saw a man in a gorilla suit walk across their field of vision, stop, turn to the camera, wave, and walk off.

I confess I was so surprised I rounded on my colleagues seated by me and demanded (rather loudly) "How on Earth did you not see it! It was a gorilla! Well, a guy in a gorilla suit! He freakin' WAVED at us! How the Hell did you miss that!" They were all like "I have no idea what you are talking about." So the instructor ran the clip again. Of course, this time everyone saw the guy in the gorilla suit.

I had heard about this experiment, but seeing it in action astounded me. How do you miss a man in a gorilla suit. And, I will confess, I feel mildly pleased with myself. I do not account myself the most observant fellow in the world, but I am pleased that I can spot a man in a gorilla suit walk across the stage, turn and wave, then walk off stage.

I think I have a new metaphor for why regulators miss the obvious. And that good advocacy is being able to tell when the gorilla walks across the stage -- preferably without losing count of the passes (17 was right, btw).
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Why Americans Can't Write Political Fiction

I just came across this essay and agree with it fully. It remind me in some ways of a speech I've been giving for years. We view politics as the home of the corrupt and inevitably corrupting.

I've often wanted to write a political novel along the lines suggested, one which captures the complexity and hard choice of politics, and the fact that most people in my experience in Washington DC are trying to do what they think is the right thing -- for varying definitions of "right thing." This does not preclude either the influence of money or subsequent rationalizations, but they are the more complex subjects worthy of literature rather than satire or pulp.