But Did They See the Pink Elephants?

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Courtesy of Todd Seavey comes one of the stranger tales of mystery and imagination emanating from the University of Washington in Seattle:

After one drink, most study participants overlooked an ape onscreen

New research by the University of Washington may make you think again: Most of the study participants who had had only one cocktail didn't even notice a gorilla walking through the middle of a ballgame.

That's right. The UW researchers tested people while they focused intently on a single task–counting the number of basketball passes in a video. Most of them couldn't see much else, such as realize that the clip features a woman in an ape suit who suddenly walks to center screen, beats her chest and exits–a nine-second cameo.

They were twice as likely to miss it as nondrinkers.

Yes, the study sample was tiny (though it supports earlier versions of the experiment done elsewhere), Seattle ain't much of a basketball town, and the participants were probably stoned on high-grade coffee and Peter Bagge comics. But the results should give pause to all of us who typically belt down drinks throughout the day at the Surgeon General mandated pace of three an hour. How many apes walking around do we miss? We might be living in a Roddy McDowall simian utopia without even realizing it, and angering the Great Lawgiver to boot.

But mostly, all of us–sober or drunk, ape or human–should be on the lookout for the policy terminus to which this sort of research is likely to lead: even more draconian drunk-driving laws and more of a War on Booze than already exists.

The results suggest that mildly intoxicated drivers, focused intently on their speed to keep from being stopped by the police, might not see pedestrians or other vehicles, the researchers said.

It indicates that "even having one stiff drink can make you blind drunk," the researchers reported in the current edition of the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology.

Whole thing here.

A few years back, Reason's own Jacob Sullum took a break from mixing martinis to look into the effectiveness of then-trendy calls for lowering legal blood-alcohol content. What he found is online here.

And here's a gratuitous link to the excellent Modern Drunkard magazine, though as this is the 21st century, I'm still eagerly anticipating Postmodern Drunkard.

NEXT: Limp Dick

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  1. A planet where apes bounce balls with men?

  2. The results suggest that mildly intoxicated drivers, focused intently on their speed to keep from being stopped by the police, might not see pedestrians or other vehicles, the researchers said.

    No it doesn’t. When I drive I know to focus on speed and the road ahead of me (which includes potential objects to avoid hitting). They did not say, “Count the number of passes made and the number of women in ape suits.” Especially when you consider that once you get to the desired speed, it’s very easy to hit cruise control and only focus on the road.

  3. It strikes me as a bit silly to hint that the study should be discounted or ignored if it might lead to laws limiting drivers to no drinks at all. Since driving on public roads always involves potential third-party effects, it seems to make more sense to ask whether the point the study tries to make is valid or not. To sneer at a study because the conclusions are uncomfortable is behavior I’d associate with inteligent design folks more than writers for a magazine called Reason.

  4. This is a real misinterpretation of this study. The study was done to show how inacurate eyewitness accounts can be. People sober or drunk, percieve things by applying a known story over the perceptions. In this case, people are seeing a basketball game, so their mind knows what to focus on and what to expect to happen. The mind never thinks to look for or percieve a gorilla, so many people just don’t see the gorilla when it walks on the court because it is so unexpected.

  5. Query: If I drink ten margaritas and go watch King Kong, will I see the giant ape, or will I think I’m watching some avant-garde film about people running around screaming for no reason? Has this test been conducted with other primates? What about humans? I seem to recall seeing other people when inebriated in the past. Hmm.

  6. A lot of people can’t see stuff. Like, people with green eyes can’t see dogs. It’s completely true, and very scary. Think about it. All they hear is the barking.

    For those who don’t get it, click on my name.

  7. Say, you don’t think our inability to see gorillas after a drink will have anything to do with the apes taking over? That would be sad.

  8. I seem to recall seeing other people when inebriated in the past.

    In fact, they even looked more attractive.

  9. John,

    Is that really how it works? You don’t expect a gorilla at a basketball game, so you don’t notice it? I would have thought just the opposite, that when something weird pops up, “sticks out like a sore thumb,” as it were, it is that very weirdness that you are most likely to notice and remember later.

  10. Mitch,

    I wouldn’t think that it would work like that either, but most people didn’t see the gorilla in the study and that is the explanation given. I would love to have tried it myself but I already knew the gorilla was coming so I was not a fair test anymore. If people noticed the out of the ordinary, they would certainly see the gorilla nearly every time. Instead, the vast majority didn’t see the gorilla.

    I forgot to add one thing. In the original study, people were asked to count the number of passes made by the players. They then were shown the film and in the middle of the game the man in the gorilla suit walks on the floor, stands there and walks off. The people were then asked if they noticed anythign different about the game and almost none of them said anything about the gorilla. Basically your mind can only focus on one thing at a time and pretty much fills in the background with what your mind thinks is supposed to be there.

  11. Oh, for crying out loud.

    4 out of 23 versus 11 out of 23 doesn’t so much as drunkenly stagger in the direction of statistical significance. Arguing about the meaning of the report is silly, because this report is meaningless. Seriously. Stop arguing, people, there’s nothing here.

  12. At about half the basketball games I’ve been to, they’ve had a person in a gorilla costume or other mascot doing trick dunks off a trampoline. Mascots are wandering the sidelines all the time. So maybe part of the reason that people didn’t notice it was that it wasn’t all that out of place to begin with. Had it been an actual gorilla, that would be something else.

  13. Those were, I presume, MY TAX DOLLARS AT WORK.

  14. I have seen the video before (John is right – it was designed to show how bad eyewitness accounts can be) and I confess I totally did not see the gorilla. When they replayed it, with slow-mo and arrows, I was convinced it was a different shot altogether.

    However, I was sober at the time. Does this mean I am incapable of driving safely? Maybe we should swap the eye test for the Gorilla Video test at the DMV.

  15. I have to admit, when I’ve been drunk I have never once noticed a gorilla. How many have I missed?

  16. Can people see the gorilla when they are on their cell phones?

  17. This study notwithstanding, if draconian drunk-driving laws and the fear of random checks are the only thing that will make Rugged Individualists Who Know Their Own Damned Limit reconsider getting behind the wheel right after knocking back a few, I say bring on the draconian drunk-driving laws.

    Of course, those laws shouldn’t apply on fully private roads, though I have a feeling that on through roads where customers typically want to feel safe from their fellow motorists, we’d see private operators setting comparable prohibitions.

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