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Invisible Gorillas (December 2010 Morning Commencement Keynote)

  • Date: 12/11/2010
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • Let me tell you about one of the more evocative television commercials in recent history. 

    The commercial was filmed in London on behalf of a prominent newspaper. Listen to how John Steel describes it in his book, Truth, Lies and Advertising.  I quote:

    ". . . this commercial was shot in grainy black and white, more like a documentary than a commercial.” 1

    "It opens on a slow-motion scene of a rough-looking skinhead sprinting down the sidewalk of a dull terrace in an old industrial town.  A car slows menacingly at the end of the street, perhaps in pursuit. A woman, standing on her doorstep, flinches as the skinhead runs past her…” 2

    "We now see the same scene from a different angle. The skinhead darts past the woman, and this time we see that he's headed toward an old man, who is wearing a long overcoat and hat and carrying a briefcase.  The old man raises his briefcase to defend himself as the thug makes a grab for him.” 3

    "The commercial fades to a third replay of the same action…this time shot from high up on a building across the street.  We see (now) that right above the old man, who is completely oblivious to the fact, a large tray of bricks is being hoisted up the side of a building. It is swaying dangerously, and the skinhead has spotted it…races down the street…grabs the old man and pushes him back against the wall to protect him as the bricks crash to the sidewalk." 4

    As you can see, the commercial wasn’t selling a product so much as the idea that we can only arrive at the truth when we consider multiple perspectives. That’s easy to do when viewing a television program or a movie, but when it comes to real life, it takes a practiced, conscious effort to consider multiple viewpoints.

    Our perspectives, it seems, are sometimes like blinders: They restrict our field of vision, allowing us to see only selected aspects of our environment and, simultaneously, keeping us from seeing other things that may be very close to us.

    Consider something that I call the "strangeness of the familiar." This is a common phenomenon, one that we experience but rarely notice. Here is a classic example: As the driver of a car, you know the streets you use to get home or to work. But if you now ride as a passenger down those same streets, or if you walk, you suddenly see things that you never saw when you were the driver. It is, indeed, as if you are seeing them for the first time.

    “We all believe that we are capable of seeing what’s in front of us, of accurately remembering important events from our past, of understanding the limits of our knowledge, of properly determining cause and effect.  But these intuitive beliefs are often mistaken ones that mask critically important limitations on our cognitive abilities.” 5

    Certainly, this is the basis of the well-demonstrated unreliability of eye-witness accounts of almost any event. Robert Heinlein addressed this decades ago in his science fiction classic, “Stranger in a Strange Land,” when he developed the concept of a Fair Witness – a person specifically trained to overcome these kinds of limitations.

    Indeed, all of us suffer from Inattentional Blindness, which is the tendency to overlook things that are often in plain sight.  In fact, magicians exploit it in their magic acts by focusing the audience’s attention on some distractive element away from what they are manipulating so you won’t see them.  They call it misdirection. 

    Dr. Susan Weinschenk, who has spent 30 years applying psychology to the workplace, now maintains a most interesting blog, and one of her recent posts is on the “47 Mind-Blowing Psychology-Proven Facts You Should Know about Yourself.” Number one on that list is Inattentional Blindness. 6

    This phenomenon of inattentional blindness was played out in a landmark psychology experiment at Harvard University. Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons created a video titled “Gorillas in Our Midst.” As it happens, it has become a global sensation on YouTube, and received more than 2.5 million hits. 7

    Filmed in 1999, this short video uses six students passing a basketball – three are wearing white; three are wearing black.  Test subjects (viewers) were asked to watch the video and count how many times the white shirts pass the ball.  In the middle of the video, a woman in a gorilla suit strolls into the action, faces the camera and thumps her chest before leaving.  She is on the screen for a full nine seconds.

    Yet, while most test subjects accurately counted the number of passes, at least half of them failed to see the gorilla.  It was, as the researchers explained, as though the gorilla was invisible. (If you have not seen the video, simply go to YouTube and search for “gorillas in our midst.”)

    The experiment became the genesis for the best-selling book, The Invisible Gorilla: and Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us.  In it, Drs. Chabris and Simons maintain that people do, in fact, miss much of what they could see, while at the same time overestimating their mental abilities and capacities.  They write that “it is a kind of a self-delusion,” which can have serious consequences when it leads to “a false sense of security, such as talking or texting on a cell phone while driving.” 8

    The authors point out that although humans have the motor skills necessary to drive with one hand and to hold a cell phone with the other, the problem lies with our attentional resources.  In other words, with the fact that we could be looking directly at something and not see it. 

    Of course, the problem is not limited to cell phones on the highway.  Inattentional blindness can result from being lost in thought: thinking about unfinished projects at work or at school, or what you’ll do when you get home.  It’s happening to many of you right now.

    And this means that although we pride ourselves in being able to multi task, we really can only focus on one thing at a time.

    According to Chabris and Simons, “The error of perception results from a lack of attention to an unexpected object…people don’t see the (metaphoric) gorilla, but not because of a problem with their eyes.  When people devote their attention to a particular area or aspect of their…world, they tend not to notice unexpected objects, even when those unexpected objects are salient, potentially important, and appear right where they are looking.” 9

    If you take nothing else from this lesson today other than “texting while driving is a bad thing,” it’s been a profitable lesson. But since you are now University of Akron graduates, I am confident you understand the deeper meaning of this talk. 

    So please strive to experience the world from more than just one perspective. Develop a fuller picture of your existence. And as you go about achieving the potential that you have developed in your years at this University, try to overcome the many inattentional blind spots that may form in your life.  Doing so will help you make better decisions and create a more fulfilling and enjoyable life for you and those around you.



    1. Steel, John, Truth, Likes and Advertising: The Art of Account Planning,  John Wiley & Sons, February 1998
    2. Steel, Ibid
    3. Steel, Ibid
    4. Steel, Ibid
    5. Chabris, Christopher and Daniel Simons, The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us, Crown, New York, 2010, p. ix & x)
    6. (Weinschenk, Susan, “47 Mind-Blowing Psychology-Proven Facts You Should Know About Yourself,” Innovation Daily, http://innovationamerica.us/index.php/innovation-daily/8663-47-mind-blowing-psychology-proven-facts-you-should-know-about-yourself
    7. YouTube.com
    8. Simons, Daniel, The Invisible Gorilla, Futurity.org., posted by Steve McGaughey
    9. Chabris, Ibid, p.6
  • Topic Category: commencement addresses
  • Tags: psychology perception attention inattention misdirection inattentional blindness strangeness of the familiar multiple perspectives
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