Gorillas in our Midst

Why you’ll often miss the best opportunities – and biggest upcoming problems – when they are right in your face

Gorillas in the Midst

(Source: Freaking News)

Suppose for a moment that I were to walk into your office, right at this minute, dressed as a gorilla.

Yes, a gorilla – stay with me here.

Now imagine I start making a scene, beating my fists on my chest, grunting, upturning desks and throwing papers.

I sincerely doubt that this would go unnoticed in your workplace (if it would, I’d love to know where you work). But it’s quite possible that you might be missing things almost as obvious every day. Even right now.

This includes some of the best opportunities, but also the gravest threats.

“Ow, my head hurts” – Why Information Bombardment interferes with your focus

The modern world is a visually crowded place. There is a huge amount of information flooding our brains at all moments.

Let’s use an example from your life. Take, for example, your commute to work this morning – how many people did you see? How many items of clothing? How many cars, traffic lights, street signs and advertisements? There were likely hundreds (if not thousands) of different things that passed your eyes.

Now, what percentage of those do you remember? I’m going to guess a very small percentage, which will get even smaller as the day progresses and your memory fades.

So the obvious question from all of this is – how does your brain decide what information to absorb, and what to ignore? How does your brain decide what to ‘filter out’ and what to ‘see’?

We are bombarded with information at all times and it simply isn’t possible for the human brain to process it all. The brain will focus on what’s important and ignore the rest, and the part of your brain that does this is called the Reticular Activating System (also known as “what you’ll be Googling during your lunch break today after you finish reading this article”).

Introducing the RAS and how it works for you (and sometimes against you)

The RAS is part of a loose network of neurons in the brain centred in the brain stem and extending into the cerebellum. The RAS has many useful functions including regulation of sleep/wake cycles, eating and, most importantly, the ability to focus our attention.

Reticular Activating System

(Source: Siriraj Medical Journal)

Importantly, the RAS helps us lighten our mental burden by ‘deleting’ or ‘filtering’ irrelevant information from our conscious awareness. This saves us from mental processing overload but can also remove useful information. This is called inattentional blindness.

This still sounds rather academic, doesn’t it? I bet you think it doesn’t affect you very much.

Let’s test that right now and see how much it affects you.

Try this experiment. Watch the video below. It’s simple – you just need to count the number of passes of the ball that are completed by the team wearing white. Let’s see if you get the right number.

For those of you unable to watch the video, roughly halfway through a large man wearing a full Gorilla suit walked into the scene, paused and beat his chest several times before continuing to walk off screen. In Chabris and Simmon’s famous 1999 experiment into inattentional blindness, almost 50% of the participants did not see this as they were focusing on counting the passes.

Then again, why would they? Wasn’t the number of successful passes the important information?

And there lies the crucial point – what you determine to be of value at a particular point in time is what the RAS will choose to focus on.

It’s also a reason why positive thinking works – if you choose to have a positive attitude, your mind will search for and identify the positives and opportunities in a situation. However, if you are more concerned about the negatives, then the negative aspects are all you’re likely to see (creating a self-perpetuating loop of negativity).

Inattentional blindness can have significant implications for business success and survival, especially in the context of new disruptive technologies. Take the music industry for example. In response to the rise of peer-to-peer file sharing in 1990s, the record industry took aggressive legal action to shut down sites like Napster that allowed consumers to share music online for free. At the time, they were focused on selling CDs to consumers through retail music stores, and so they saw the new technology as a threat to what they thought was important. They thought they were in the business of selling CDs, when they were actually in the business of sharing music. As a result, they missed a huge opportunity to take control of online music distribution. While they were focusing on CD sales and law suits, Apple came along and launched the iTunes Music Store, which is now the world’s largest music retailer with revenues exceeding $12 billion per year.

So, just how much valuable information are we missing in the world around us? The answer is probably a much larger amount than you initially thought. But luckily, there are a few things you can do to reduce the effect of inattentional blindness.

What you can do about it

Inattentional blindness is hard to avoid as it has been helping to keep us alive for countless generations and is ingrained in our behaviour. So how can we reduce its occurrence in our work lives?

1. Identify what’s important

RAS works on relevance, importance and value. By taking the time and effort to consciously decide what is important and of value to you, you’re more likely to identify relevant opportunities as they arise (often subconsciously). Making a concise list and referring to it will help – this will essentially help to “train” your RAS.

2. Be careful what you choose to consciously focus on

Stimulus deletion in the RAS is indiscriminate and can have a profound impact on your performance in a range of tasks. Choosing to focus on negative aspects of your work or life can be disastrous as positive factors are automatically filtered. Again, your RAS will focus on what you train it to.

3. Seek information that contradicts your point of view

We tend to try and make sense of the world by seeking information that confirms the things that we believe. This leads to a risk of unintentionally filtering out valuable alternatives and causing our RAS to be limited in scope. Look for diversity of opinions to keep your RAS open (but still be clear on what kind of things you want to focus on).

Different people will naturally have different values and by extension different RAS filters. Consult widely with a range of people to help you see aspects of a problem that you might have filtered.

4. When communicating with others, use multiple mediums

How do you stop others from filtering when you’re trying to make a point or send an important message?

Be sure to use multiple means of communication, as some of them are likely to fall victim to filtering. Using email, phone calls, text messages, tweets, smoke signals, friend requests and other methods in conjunction increases the perceived importance of a message and will increase its likely uptake.

5. Reassess Frequently

Times change and so must we. Just because something was important to you yesterday does not mean that it will be important today. Reassess frequently in line with your long term goals to make sure that you’re still on the path that you want to be. This is good advice for most things in life.

So, in conclusion – GORILLAS. They are everywhere.

But seriously, give it a shot today – make a few subtle tweaks to your attitude and see what it does. It will take time, but you might just see a few things that you were surprised you hadn’t noticed.

And who knows, it just might save your entire office from getting messed up.

This article was written by Shishir Pandit, Editor and Deloitte Strategy Consultant, and Matthew O’Sullivan, President of the Global Consulting Group at Melbourne University. Matthew is pursuing a Masters in Management following a bachelor’s degree in psychology and has over ten years of experience in education and sports process improvement.