[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.