Gorillas and the Missed

By now most of us have heard of the “Invisible Gorilla” experiment in which subjects were assigned to watch a video of men passing a basketball back and forth and count how many times certain players got the ball. In the middle of the game, a man in a gorilla suit walks out onto the court, faces the camera and beats his chest, then walks on out of the frame. The vast majority, up to 80% or more, of the subjects in the experiment missed the gorilla. Their attention was focused on the game, the task they’d been assigned, and the huge simian just wasn’t on their radar. I recently heard of an update to this experiment when a researcher took it a step further. He reasoned that the best detail searchers in the world were radiologists, who spend their days looking for tiny anomalies in CT scans and x-ray images, picking out things that most of us cannot discern. He designed an experiment in which the radiologists were to look for a certain type of cancer image in a series of scans and, in homage to the earlier experiment, he placed in some of the scans an image of a gorilla, postage-stamp sized, somewhere on the sheet. With sophisticated equipment, he was able to track the eye movements of the subjects as they looked for the signals they were assigned. He found that a majority of these highly trained searchers still failed to see the gorilla, even when their eyes were looking right at it. Not that they didn’t take it into account , their brains actually didn’t see it.

This has implications for motorcyclists (and everyone else, if perchance you have a gorilla embedded in your body somewhere, undetected by radiologists). In my law practice I often dealt with motorcycle accidents, including the most common scenario where a car driver turns left in front of an oncoming bike, or pulls from a side street out into the bike’s path. In almost every case the driver’s response was 1) “I never saw him” or 2) “he came out of nowhere, he must have been flying”.

I concluded that drivers (all of us, if we’re honest with ourselves) don’t devote their whole attention to the task of driving. We have other things on our mind and we let the automatic parts of our brain tend to the attention to hazards. Keith Code talks a bit about this when he speaks of learning to ride. He says we have an imaginary $20 worth of attention and in the beginning, we spend most of that allowance on the basics, such as getting the clutch engaged, shifting gears, staying balanced, etc. As we progress, those things become automatic and we can shift more of the amount to focusing on speed. Car drivers are no different. The average person is letting the subconscious mind look for hazards while the up-front parts of the brain are mulling over what’s for dinner, are the kids home from school, the fight with the boss, and all the other trivia of life. The subconscious, for those who don’t ride motorcycles, is looking for car-shaped things in the path. Car shaped and car sized. When that part perceives a motorcycle, if it “sees” the bike at all, it processes it as a car-shape/size farther away. The driver pulls out, with the sub-processor telling him that the thing is at a safe distance. Then, when the collision occurs, the mind tries to make sense of what just happened and concludes that the motorcycle “came out of nowhere” or must have arrived at a much faster speed than normal. The same calculation works in the minds of witnesses to the accident, who weren’t paying attention until the action happened.

The Gorilla Studies seem to confirm this theory. Even when one is trained to observe anomalies in a field, only the ones you’re looking for stand out. The thing we aren’t looking for is, for most of us, invisible. And, Mr. or Ms. Motorcyclist, that’s you.
We are a minority on the road and hardly a thought in the minds of most motorists (unless it’s a bad one, brought on by some of our less responsible brethren) and therefore we don’t show up on the subconscious radar at all.

All this is to say that conspicuity helps. Be something that the mind of the driver has to pay attention to. I’m not subscribing to the “loud pipes” screed, that part of the perception loop isn’t involved here (ask a policeman or ambulance driver how often drivers ignore the siren). We’re talking visuals. Make your profile larger with running lights, with bright colored jackets and helmets, with anything that makes the subconscious of the Buick operator sit up and take notice of the image that doesn’t fit into a preconceived pattern. I sometimes swerve just a bit as I approach an intersection so that the driver takes notice. Noises like horns and pipes tend to fade into the general background noise of the world and aren’t as directionally obvious as visual cues. (Don’t flash your headlight…drivers sometimes think that’s a signal to go ahead.)
Just be visible. And perhaps follow the advice I was given a half-century ago by an old rider, “Assume you’re invisible and everyone else is crazy” The gorillas prove that the first part of that is accurate and our experience on the road tends to support the second part pretty well.

About johngrice

Retired small town lawyer, lifelong motorcyclist, traveler and old guy sitting around thinking.
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