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Invisible gorillas and the independence referendum

For a while I used to hangout with management consultants.

A favourite trick was they would show you a video. It featured a group of students, and your task was to count, without using  a pencil and paper, the number of times the ball was passed.

Here’s the video.

Like a stage magician, the clever consultant would introduce the video by emphasizing how difficult measurement can be, how hard you have to focus on the task in hand, and so on.

The result of the selective attention test, as psychologists call it, is that half the audience don’t see the gorilla. Did you?

Management consultants use this piece of interesting, but hardly earth shattering psychological experimentation, to tell their audiences that not only do they need a management consultant to guide them through the process of the every day measurement and management, but that it’s OK to need management consultants, because science, etc….

Right now everyone and his auntie is trying to tell us what the invisible gorilla (or the elephant in the room, if we can mix our metaphors) is in relation to the Scottish referendum.

Just as management consultants use a piece of psychological research to justify their existence, so with journalists and the independence referendum. Just as with the management consultants, be wary of the motives of all those who think their duty to you is to explain to you what the things you are seeing really mean.

Whenever I’ve been exposed to the platitudes of management consultants and the invisible gorilla, I’ve been reminded of the Little Dutchman, my favourite anecdote about management consultants of all time, and Harry Braverman.

In honour of Harry Braverman, and to warn against the supporters of the invisible gorilla thesis, which says in effect, that we all need to be guided to see what’s really there (after being misdirected)here are my three tenets of late capitalist democracy, as practiced by journalists, spin doctors and politicians.

1. Disassociation of the electoral process from the debates and experiences of voters,so that they have to be told what the issues really are

2. The removal of the initiative from voters – akin to Braverman’s separation of conception from execution, where voters are only allowed to have a vote, not to decide when they should be asked to vote, or what about, and

3. The use of monopoly power over knowledge to control each step of the electoral process and its mode of execution.

Each time someone tells you what a political debate is really about ask yourself, what’s their interest in telling me about this invisible gorilla that only they can see? Management consultants use the invisible gorilla to tell their clients that it’s okay, its perfectly normal to not see the gorilla (especially after some careful misdirection), and that’s why you need clever people like them.

Have you got the point yet?

There’s one further point.

There was no gorilla.

It was a student in a gorilla suit. It was a stunt. Part of what’s wrong with the selective attention test, as explained by the invisible gorilla experiment, is that none of the reactions of the students playing basketball are congruent with how people really would react if a gorilla turned up in the middle of  a basketball match. So far from not noticing the gorilla, it may be our brains said ‘That’s not a gorilla, because…’ and promptly edited it out as irrelevant. Management consultants get really upset if you derail their presentation with such quibbles -I would give it a try if I were you. Similarly, if someone tells you that there is an elephant in the room, inviting them to take part in a quick debate about the load-bearing qualities of floor joists when confronted with a two ton pachyderm can be a really enjoyable dose of reality.

On Thursday, we have to trust the voters to make their decision about what is right for them, and about how they see the world. Let’s leave the metaphorical menagerie to the journalists, the modern day fakirs who have nothing better to do than gull the easily awed with their magic and their wisdom.



2 comments on “Invisible gorillas and the independence referendum

  1. ValeryNorth
    September 15, 2014

    It is fascinating: I suspect the video also would not work if there were no players wearing black – if they wore red, or blue, or green instead then the extra figure in a black costume (i.e. the gorilla costume) would stand out much more clearly.

    As you say, it’s about misdirection and camouflage; which leads me to ask whether the commenters on the Scottish referendum debates are not pointing out the gorilla but telling voters to count the passes in the hope voters will miss the gorilla they want to smuggle through.


  2. cartertheblogger
    September 15, 2014

    My point exactly Valery – and a comment like yours makes the act of blogging fun for me….


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This entry was posted on September 15, 2014 by in Uncategorized.

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