Imagine that you are watching a short video clip in which you are asked to count how many times a particular incident occurs. Easy enough. But now imagine that at one point someone in a gorilla suit walks across the screen and looks you straight in the eye. Would you notice it? Apparently around half the watchers don’t. This exercise has been carried out dozens of times, using people of different psychological profiles, and the results are always approximately the same.
The reason lies in our faculty for filtering out information which may distract us from the task in hand – in this case focusing on the incidents that have to be counted. It is easy to recognise the value of this focusing faculty. Many years ago, when the children were babies, I developed the capacity to sleep straight through their noises at night. On the grounds of my inability to breastfeed I took the view that this was their mother’s work. Typical man, you might say. But when my wife had to be away for a few days, my hearing became so acute that I could be woken by the slightest undue noise from the nursery.
So we are reminded that all our experiences are ultimately subjective. What we notice, what we remember: what we decide is mediated to us through various filters. We may have the impression that we are looking at reality but in truth we are only looking at what our mind, tutored by our innate disposition, our lifetime experiences and our chosen focuses is able to recognise.
We know about some of the irrational influences which affect us. For example, I am aware that we tend to attribute virtue to physically attractive people. But how many juries, who are less likely to convict an attractive person, and to award them higher damages, are aware of the injustice they perpetrate? And they are unlikely to be aware of how easy it is for a police interrogator to turn a witness’s uncertain and tentative evidence into sworn certainty (and genuinely experienced as such) by the time they reach the box.
What is your attitude towards money? You may range from keeping good reserves towards a rainy day to spending the maximum (or more) as soon as you hear the coins clink. You may think that your approach is rational and well thought-out. But it could depend on whether your are inclined to optimism or pessimism, or on earlier experiences – particularly as a child. And your spouse may take a different view: does that make for balance or antagonism?
No doubt many readers will have interviewed candidates for a job. How likely are you to make a good judgment of your applicant’s success? We must suppose it will be reasonably sound, or why interview? In fact on a scale from zero (completely random) to 10 (always right), the average correct judgment was between one and two.
There is strong evidence that most interview decisions are made within the first five minutes, and any contrary evidence is, like the gorilla, simply ignored. You will see tall people as more authoritative (and this can be effective throughout a whole career). A BBC accent will be seen as a sign of competence in one culture, and as a sign of effete impracticality in another. In many areas of industry a beard can be a problem; they will use your brains but the boardroom is a step too far for such eccentricity. The biggest quality to bring as a candidate is to be likeable to the interviewer. Provided that you have the essential qualifications that will be the decisive factor.
Of course, the interviewers may have been rather thick. But Professor Eysenk persuaded the matron at a London teaching hospital to give up interviewing, and to select senior nurses simply on paper evidence of the necessary (high) qualifications and proven work record. Her selection accuracy went up substantially. Overwhelming evidence shows that selection interviews are actually counterproductive. Of course no one believes that, but it remains true.
How do you judge risk? If I asked you to rate the safety of say bicycling, flying, walking, car, or train in order of deaths per mile travelled you might well get the order right. But you might not know that walking and cycling are about the same risk (about a third of the risk of motorcycling). The car risk is less than a tenth of the cycling risk but 25 times the risk of the train; and the air risk is so low that it practically falls off the chart. We are likely to be influenced by publicity given to big incidents, and certainly by our own experience or that of people close to us. Just driving past an accident, ambulance and all, may make us more careful. But none of this affects the actual probabilities. I break off at this point to nip out to visit my wife in hospital, remembering that, measured by deaths, hospital beds are a dangerous environment.
And I am back, reflecting on the dangers of unconscious factors in our decisions. I could have filled several columns with further, well-investigated, examples. I believe profoundly in free will but how can I judge that I am free in any specific decision? As it happens I have kept records of such studies over some 20 years, and wrote a book largely devoted to them. So it is likely that I know more about the effects of our unconscious on our freedom than most people have had the opportunity to study. And I am still foxed.
What effect does this have on our quest of virtue or for our capacity for sin? How well trained are our spiritual adviser or our confessors in such matters? Share your ideas with us.