One of my favorite exercises to conduct in negotiation or conflict resolution training consists of showing my audience the famous gorilla video, created by the Visual Cognition Lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
I tell the audience that they will observe two teams of people playing basketball, one in white shirts and the other in black, and tell them to count the number of times the team wearing white t-shirts bounces the ball.
So focused are most audience members on accurately counting the number of times the ball bounces, they fail to observe the person in a gorilla costume who strolls through the players, stops in front of the camera to thump its chest, and then exits the scene.
After asking them to tell me what number they counted to, I ask if anyone noticed anything unusual. On average, across the many times I have played that video, only one third of the audience will have noticed the gorilla. On rare occasions, only two people out of an audience of, say, 50, will have seen the gorilla. And the ones that didn’t see the gorilla can’t believe their eyes when I replay the video to show them that the gorilla really was there after all. That’s a lot of people who didn’t see the gorilla.
It serves as a potent reminder of how easily our attention to one thing can blind us to seeing what is literally in front of our eyes — and that in every situation where lives or livelihoods are at stake, where relationships or choices matter — whether resolving a conflict, making an important decision, or pulling the lever in the voting booth — a gorilla may be present, hiding in the open, right in plain view.
Before we can talk about the gorilla, we have to know he’s there.