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In Plain Sight

In 1999, the psychologists Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris used a gorilla suit to great effect. They asked viewers to count…By Michael Segal

In 1999, the psychologists Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris used a gorilla suit to great effect. They asked viewers to count the number of times a basketball was passed around in an 81-second video. At one point, a person in a gorilla suit strolled through the scene. Many viewers missed it.

The video demonstration of what the psychologists called selective attention has been seen nearly 20 million times on YouTube (presumably many of these are second views), and spawned something of a cottage industry. There’s a book, countless popular articles, and over two and a half thousand academic citations of the refereed paper.

Retellings of the result often take the form of a warning—you might be ignoring something important. But one of the most widely read citing papers, by the psychologists Mara Mather and Laura Carstensen, points out that cognitive distortions like selective attention are how we keep ourselves happy. As we age, we increasingly focus on happy memories, and place more emphasis on emotional regulation than on information accuracy.

In other words, just counting the basketball passes is part of the plan.

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