Missing the Obvious & the Invisible Gorilla

By | August 20, 2019

[August 20, 2019]  We were told to be on the lookout for the Soviet-built ZSU-23-4 Shilka anti-aircraft gun.  In previous training exercises, the imitation ZSU had shot down several U.S. attack helicopters.  We were missing the obvious battlefield threat of armored infantry and paid a heavy price in another scenario at the Fort Irwin simulated battlefield.

In 1999 an intriguing experiment was conducted.  The ‘invisible gorilla” experiment had volunteers watching a video where two groups of people – some dressed in white, some in black – are passing basketballs around.  The volunteers were asked to count the passes among players dressed in white while ignoring the passes of those in black.  During the short awareness test, a person in a gorilla suit walks among the players, beats his chest, and exits.  About half the volunteers never saw the gorilla.1  To watch the video, click here.

While my soldiers were looking hard for the ZSU anti-antiaircraft gun, several “enemy” armored infantry vehicles were able to move into our hardened battle position and destroy us all.  I’m happy it was only an exercise but one that embarrassed our commander and made us look foolish.  As the volunteers in the invisible gorilla experiment saw, we were so focused on looking for one thing that we missed something else that was obvious and important.

The original, now world-famous awareness test from Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris can tell us much about the human mind.  Leaders should be particularly aware of the inattentional blindness that all of us have experienced in the past.  Our failure to awareness, which this experiment highlights, tells us that we are aware of far less of our world than we might thin,

This invisible gorilla experiment was relatively new and unknown when the Iraq War started in 2003.  I was fortunate enough to have it shown to some of the leaders in my Engineer unit.  At first, I didn’t know what to say.  I’d missed the gorilla.  When the video was replayed, the gorilla was obvious, so how could anyone overlook it?  Such an experiment drove home the lesson that it takes many pairs of eyes to “see” the battlefield as it is.

We learned from the Simons and Chabris video and were fortunate enough that nothing like this occurred on the real battlefield and we all came home.  My mother always told me to pay attention at all times.  My wife tells me the same, more often than I’d like to admit.  What we should learn is that no matter how hard we concentrate on remaining observant, we will miss things.  And that could mean a matter of life and death.

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  1. https://www.livescience.com/6727-invisible-gorilla-test-shows-notice.html
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Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

25 thoughts on “Missing the Obvious & the Invisible Gorilla

  1. Jerry C. Jones

    Great article. Thanks for the info on this experiment.

  2. Doc Blackshear

    Having spent 10 years in the army, I too have had many such experiences in training. I never was in combat but many of my friends have been. They tell me this is a common problem; overlooking the obvious. The problem is that it will get you or your buddy killed.

  3. Eric Coda

    Another informative, entertaining article. well done! 👍

    1. Roger Yellowmule

      I agree, Eric. This is why I keep coming back to Gen. Satterfield’s blog. Not only do you learn about leadership in readings that take less than 2 minutes, but there is a lively, on-going discussion in the comments section. That is truly educational also.

  4. Doug Smith

    This was a GREAT experiment. I heard about it shortly after it came out and looked into inattentional blindness. It makes for some interesting reading. I recommend a further look into it.

  5. Nick Lighthouse

    This form of invisibility depends not on the limits of the eye, but on the limits of the mind.

  6. Greg Heyman

    Good article, thank you Gen. Satterfield. Like several commentators here in your blog, I too had not heard of it. I found your examples to be practical and got me to read the entire piece.

  7. Otto Z. Zuckermann

    I too have often missed the obvious. That means I’m human but also that I must remain vigilant.

  8. JT Patterson

    Thank you Gen Satterfield for an informative posting on a rarely seen experiment. By rarely I mean most of us not in college or in psychology don’t see this kind of info very much because we are working. Thanks for bringing it to our attention. It would be good to pull some additional lessons from it.

  9. Len Jakosky

    Gen. Satterfield, I thoroughly enjoyed today’s article. I learned something but more importantly I learned that no matter how hard you try, you will overlook something and that thing you overlook might be right in your face. That is why it is better to work in teams; others might spot the obvious before you do. 😉

    1. Scotty Bush

      Teamwork! There is no “I” in teamwork. We say that for a reason and now we have another reason.

  10. Wesley Brown

    Wow, good stuff here today. I really learned something and that can be directly applied as a warning to leaders like me who overlook the obvious. Thanks for giving us a story where it applied and the result (which was bad) helped you be a better military officer.

  11. Mr. T.J. Asper

    I enjoyed your article today mostly because I’d never heard of this before. Intriguing.

    1. Drew Dill

      I had not heard of it either so I went to the links in Gen. Satterfield’s blog post and read more about it. Turns out that there was a followup experiment too. Worth reading the links sometimes. Great work here.

    2. Ed Berkmeister

      Thanks Mr. Asper. Please keep up your work with kids (teaching and coaching). I regularly read your comments for more insights and knowing what you are doing to keep kids from being sucked into the PC culture.

      1. Mr. T.J. Asper

        Thank you Ed. It’s not an easy job when you have the “administration” constantly on your back to teach socialism underhandedly.

      2. Walter H.

        Yes, keep up the much-needed work with our kids. Personally, I no longer trust teachers in High School and below. At least in college you know you’re getting some weird professors and can guard yourself or young kids against it.

  12. Janna Faulkner

    Years back, I’d heard about this innovative experiment. It teaches us good lessons about what we do NOT see and what happens when we focus on the wrong thing. Great article bringing this to our attention.

    1. lydia truman

      Yes, I’d heard of it too but didn’t pay any attention to it. That was unthinking of me. Now I have a better understanding.

      1. Gil Johnson

        Good to see you back on, Lynn. Hope you have been doing some great things for our military lately.

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