If a person is thinking about their own cognitive processes, they are practicing what psychologists call meta-cognition. If they are feeling confident about their own cognitive abilities, psychology researcher Dan Simons says there is a good chance they are wrong.
Simons reached that conclusion after doing years of experimental studies that demonstrated how flawed we humans are when it comes to accurately assessing our own cognitive abilities involving attention, visual perception, and memory.
It was the insight gained from his work that motivated this Professor of Psychology and Beckman Institute faculty member to take a stab at becoming a writer of popular non-fiction. And about a year ago, Simons’ foray into the world of trade publishing paid off when he signed a book writing deal with Crown Publishing of New York.
Simons has co-authored the book on the topic of meta-cognition with his research collaborator at Union College, Chris Chabris. The book is scheduled for release in May 2010 and will use anecdotal evidence as well as scientific data as the two academics present their case to a general audience.
“We’re trying to make it completely accessible,” Simons said. “We have a lot of research in there, so we’re trying to back up the anecdotes with the science. But it’s going to rest on the anecdotes because that is what people find persuasive.”
Simons said the use of anecdotes as a key element of the storytelling was a very deliberate decision by the authors. The book, titled The Invisible Gorilla, will be challenging some strongly-held notions involving topics that have been featured prominently in the media recently. The authors wanted to use the anecdotes – backed up by the science – to change people’s thinking about some of these topics.
“It’s part of our nature; narratives are powerful,” Simons said. “Unlike a lot of general audience books that make their arguments entirely using anecdotes and compelling narratives, we are trying to use narratives that lead directly to conclusions that are consistent with the science.”
While he can’t talk in detail yet about the book’s contents, Simons is able to describe its principal theme.
“It’s a look at meta-cognition and how we understand how our minds work and whether our intuitions are accurate or not,” he said. “One way to think about it is that we lack access to a lot of the mechanisms that govern what we do a lot of the time, but we think we do have access to them. People will say ‘oh I always notice mistakes in movies.’ No, they don’t. You notice the ones that you notice, but you don’t know about all the ones you didn’t notice. So we have this mistaken intuition that we notice everything.”
Crown Publishing, which features best-selling writers like Alice Hoffman and Martha Stewart in its stable of authors, is a division of industry giant Random House. Simons said it wasn’t an easy task to enter the world of big-time publishing. He said he first started working on a book proposal a couple of years ago when he was on sabbatical, but it took awhile for them to get it polished enough to submit to publishers.
The process included a story pitch to publishers and writing some sample chapters. Simons said the pitch, ala Hollywood, involved describing the book as a cross between two non-fiction science-oriented best-sellers.
“The way we pitched it was a mixture of Predictably Irrational and Blink,” he said. “It was exactly the same as a movie pitch. In fact, they seem to work on a blockbuster model. They try and have a couple of big books for each season and a whole bunch of ones that they don’t pay very much for and hope that they will become unexpected hits.”
The book proposal also had to demonstrate that its topic could appeal to a wide audience.
“We wrote an introduction and we had an annotated table of contents for the rest of the book,” Simons said. “So we identified each of the chapters and wrote about a page describing the focus of each chapter. It had to be really catchy. This is popular writing. We are not targeting academics. Some people might use it in a class but it is not aimed at that.”
— Dan Simons
Simons said most popular science books are written by journalists, not scientists, and that those that are written by scientists often have a co-writer and/or have been heavily edited. That won’t be the case with his book.
“My co-author and I are pretty good writers but much better editors,” he said.
“That works really well in the sense that we can pass things back and forth 20 times and hone it until it’s pretty tight. We’ve got a good collaborative writing relationship and we’ve worked together for over a decade now.”
Their best-known collaboration was on the famous Gorillas in the Midst study, which won an Ig Nobel Prize in 2004 for science that makes people laugh and then think. That innovative study, which featured half of all test subjects not noticing as a person in a gorilla suit walked through a scene in a video, was part of their work at Harvard in the areas of change and inattentional blindness.
Simons has continued that work at Illinois and Beckman, looking at topics such as automobile drivers not noticing motorcyclists and whether expertise in team sports leads to differences in basic attention abilities. The book will include research results from Simons, Chabris, and others, as well as a national representative survey the authors commissioned about beliefs and psychology. The motivation to write it, Simons said, comes directly from the research.
“It was the topic itself,” he said. “The more we thought about the phenomena that we looked at – this change blindness and inattentional blindness – the more we found that people just don’t have the right intuitions. We started seeing more and more examples of it.
“I get e-mails from people I don’t know saying how they have encountered this in some context that I had never really thought about. The more I ran across that the more I realized that it was catching on as a popular notion. We just thought it would make for a good point to say that people just don’t get this in some fundamental way.”
What people don’t get, Simons said, is how much we overestimate the power and accuracy of our own cognitive abilities and feelings.
“People rely on their intuitions about how the mind works and their intuitions are often fundamentally wrong,” he said. “They are wrong for good reasons. Our system wasn’t designed to do the things we ask it to do now. Inattentional blindness, the failure to notice something that is right there, doesn’t matter if you are just walking around the woods as a hunter-gatherer. If you are driving 60 miles an hour, it’s devastating.
“Our system evolved a property that is really good for us: focused attention. You don’t want to get distracted by every little thing or you would never get anything done. It is how our mind works. We think our memory is really good because everything we recall is vivid. It is counter-intuitive to us that our memory can be completely wrong but still feel right.”
False memories will be one topic discussed in the book, along with others such as inattentional blindness, memory, confidence in cognitive abilities, untapped potential, beliefs in causality, and the controversy surrounding autism and vaccinations. Some of the topics they take on will be controversial, but Simons said those elements are crucial to making their points.
“One of our motivations is clichéd, but it is raising awareness,” he said. “The first step in having people do something is to get them to realize their intuitions are wrong.”
As an example, Simons said input from a friend when it comes to buying a new car can often be a more powerful influence than data sources and the opinions of experts.
“Say Consumer Reports says Toyotas are really reliable but your best friend tells you ‘I had a Toyota and it was a lemon, it was constantly in the shop.’ Even as a scientist it’s hard not to weight that far more heavily than you should,” Simons said. “You should completely discount it; the statistics are all that matters.
“But that anecdote is just so powerful. We’re all subject to it; I’m subject to it too. Would I be a little less likely to buy a Toyota? Yes, even though I shouldn’t be. That’s part of our goal, to give people an entry to more statistical thinking, more scientific thinking, that will help them counter those more immediate gut reactions.”
After all the editing of the book is done, then the process turns to legal vetting, artwork, and marketing. Although he has been interviewed by major media like the Washington Post and the New York Times, promoting a book will be a new experience for Simons. He hopes it will be a good one, just like writing a work of popular non-fiction has been.
“The style of writing is completely different than any kind of writing I have done,” Simons said. “I actually enjoy the style of writing; it allows you to go beyond your normal research domain, so that’s been fun.
“If the book does well, I could see doing more. If it doesn’t do well, I might not have the option,” he added with a laugh.
This article is part of the Winter 2010 Synergy Issue, a publication of the Communications Office of the Beckman Institute.