That isn’t obvious at all!

There’s sometimes a troubling aspect to aging: missing things. I don’t mean because they are no longer there -I mean because they are, and I still miss them. It’s nothing that concentration won’t fix (lest you think I’m teetering above the abyss of dementia’s canyon) but it’s still annoying. I have to be careful in case I miss the point of an abstruse argument, or the wording of a poorly composed Email.

I suppose it’s really nothing new -for years now I have avoided books like, say, Anna Karenina (too many characters to keep straight), or movies with several competing and distracting plots for much the same reasons. I always thought it was just an idiosyncrasy, a conceit that I had better things to do. That it didn’t really matter, anyway -I mean, everything else seemed to work. And besides, how much stuff are you supposed to worry about?

But it started to bother me the other day again, when I quickly scanned an unexpected text from a friend, and replied -equally quickly- asking a question he’d already answered in his text. Nothing major, I guess, and yet for some reason I found it inordinately disconcerting -like I had missed something in plain sight because I had been, what, fixated on the main message? Not expecting the answer to a question I had not asked? Cursory inspection misses weeds in the best of lawns, I guess, but I felt foolish. Atavistically impetuous.

Absolution -or perhaps, more an amnesty- arrived from an unexpected source, however. I discovered an article in the online journal Aeon, by Teppo Felin, a professor of strategy at the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford. It was entitled The Fallacy of Obviousness:

To start with, he talks about ‘‘the ‘Gorillas in Our Midst’ (1999) experiment of visual attention by the American psychologists Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris… In the experiment, subjects were asked to watch a short video and to count the basketball passes. The task seemed simple enough. But it was made more difficult by the fact that subjects had to count basketball passes by the team wearing white shirts, while a team wearing black shirts also passed a ball. This created a real distraction… While subjects try to count basketball passes, a person dressed in a gorilla suit walks slowly across the screen. The gorilla even stops in the middle of the screen, thumps its chest, and then walks off. The surprising fact is that some 70 per cent of subjects never see the gorilla.’

It’s a fact that most people who watch the clip miss the gorilla. But it does not necessarily follow that this illustrates – as both the study’s authors and Kahneman [a Nobel laureate, who wrote the book Thinking, Fast and Slow] argue – that humans are ‘blind to the obvious’.

Felin looks at it from a different perspective and wonders what one might notice in the video if there were no instructions beforehand as to what to look for. There were multiple things incorporated into it that might well have been the purpose of showing it: ‘the total number of basketball passes, the overall gender or racial composition of the individuals passing the ball, the number of steps taken by the participants. If you are looking for them, many other things are also obvious in the clip: the hair colour of the participants, their attire, their emotions, the colour of the carpet (beige), the ‘S’ letters spray-painted in the background, and so forth.’

He calls it the ‘Fallacy of Obviousness’ -in this case, because there are so many things in the clip to notice. ‘But missing any one of these things isn’t a basis for saying that humans are blind. The experiment is set up in such a way that people miss the gorilla because they are distracted by counting basketball passes.’

The point of his contention is that it is ‘what people are looking for – rather than what people are merely looking at – [that] determines what is obvious.’ -what they are likely to notice, in other words. He describes the attempt of one of my favourite philosophers to illustrate this: ‘The important point is that humans do not observe scenes passively or neutrally. In 1966, the philosopher Karl Popper conducted an informal experiment to make this point. During a lecture at the University of Oxford, he turned to his audience and said: ‘My experiment consists of asking you to observe, here and now. I hope you are all cooperating and observing! However, I feel that at least some of you, instead of observing, will feel a strong urge to ask: “What do you want me to observe?”’ Then Popper delivered his insight about observation: ‘For what I am trying to illustrate is that, in order to observe, we must have in mind a definite question, which we might be able to decide by observation.’ At that point, I felt the weight on my shoulders lighten somewhat when I considered the text I had received.

But I suppose I should already have known -it reminded me of something that happened to me on a bus a year or so ago. A heavily perfumed elderly woman sitting beside me on a crowded bus was busily tut-tutting over something in a newspaper she was reading. I could hear the woman sighing loudly as she progressed through the article, shaking her head in disbelief from time to time.

I tried to sneak a look without turning my head to see what was distressing her, but she noticed my attempts and glared at me for a moment.

Then her eyes relented, and with what seemed almost a sigh of relief that she could finally discuss it with someone, she handed me the paper. “What’s the world coming to?” she muttered and shook her head again, this time sending waves of perfume my way.

At first, I wasn’t sure whether she meant my inquisitiveness, or the contents of the newspaper, so I smiled with what I hoped was a neutral, wait-and-see spread of my lips.

The article was about food and how manufacturers have learned to make orange juice seem as fresh as if you had squeezed it yourself. That sounded like a good thing, and I nodded vigorously and smiled at the woman once I had skimmed through a paragraph or two. “It’s amazing what they can do with flavours nowadays, isn’t it?” I said, wondering what she had objected to.

The woman glared at me and then quickly grabbed the paper back, as if I’d taken it from her by force. “They add ethyl butyrate to it,” she said, hissing between her teeth.

My smile faded a little, but I stood my ground -well, sat my ground, anyway. In fact, I’d glossed over the additive, in my admiration of the company being able to duplicate the taste of a freshly squeezed orange. The issue of how they had done it seemed less important in the moment than their accomplishment. “Ethyl butyrate…?” I said, trying to shake my head like she had, but admittedly with less conviction.

“It’s a chemical,” she explained, as if they’d added a touch of arsenic, or something.

Out of politeness, I thought perhaps I should convey sympathy with her objection, and tried to modify my facial muscles, but it was too late, and she reached for the pull cord to get out at the next stop. As she stood and squeezed past me to leave, a sudden invisible cloud of her perfume made me cough and she glared at me again.

How could I have known she was against chemicals?


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