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Where Is The Gorilla?

PGP Mediation Blog by Phyllis G. Pollack

In 1999, Professors Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris conducted a now well known study at Harvard University on distraction. As explained in a recent article on BBC Health News:

Participants watched a video of two groups of people passing a basketball around – one group in black shirts, one group in white shirts.

Participants were asked to count the number of passes made by players in white shirts.

In the middle of the video a person in a gorilla suit walks into the middle of the action, faces the camera and thumps its chest, spending a total of 9 seconds on screen.

Half the observers who watched the video and counted the passes did not notice the gorilla.

Recently, Dr. Trafton Drew, a psychologist at Harvard medical school took this study one step further. He took a CT chest scan and superimposed a match-box size image of a gorilla into some of the scans. He then asked very experienced radiologists skilled in spotting tumors who normally will spot tiny abnormalities on a CT scan within seconds to view the scan and state whether they spotted anything out of the ordinary. More than eighty percent of these radiologists missed the gorilla “… despite the fact that the eye tracking monitor showed that half the radiologists who did not see the gorilla had actually looked right at it for about half a second.” (Id.).

As the researchers explain:

When we focus our attention on a narrow task we tend to miss other things and this effect, termed inattentional blindness, is exactly what the basketball observers were demonstrating. It turns out that there is a big difference between looking at something and perceiving it….

… “Part of the reason that radiologists are so good at what they do is that they are very good at narrowly focusing their attention on these lung nodules. And the cost of that is that they’re subject to missing other things, even really obvious large things like a gorilla.” (Id.)

Thus, while it is good to focus on a particular issue, doing so may just well cause us not to observe the unexpected or unusual. In other words, we may well “lose sight of the forest for the trees.”(

How does inattentional blindness affect negotiations and mediations? In many ways, the most obvious is that if the parties focus on one issue or one “salient” fact to the exclusion of all else, they are liable not to see the “out of the box” alternatives for resolving the matter. They will not be receptive to the unexpected or unusual and will not be looking for innovative ways to settle their dispute.

The moral: don’t miss the gorilla in the middle of the picture!

…. Just something to think about.


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE >

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