Invisible Gorilla, part the second…

In which Lady Catherine De Bourgh encounters aforementioned gorilla

Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 31: Conversation between Lady Catherine De Bourgh and Colonel Fitzwilliam

“What is it that you are saying, Fitzwilliam? What is it you are talking of? What are you telling Miss Bennet? Let me hear what it is.”

“We are speaking of music, Madam,” said he, when no longer able to avoid a reply.

“Of music! Then pray speak aloud. It is of all subjects my delight. I must have my share in the conversation, if you are speaking of music. There are few people in England, I suppose, who have more true enjoyment of music than myself, or a better natural taste. If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient.”

Barbara Leigh-Hunt as Lady Catherine, 1995credit:

Barbara Leigh-Hunt as Lady Catherine, 1995

Readers may smile at Lady Catherine’s steadfast belief in her untried musical talent, without recognizing that the illusion under which she labors (called the “illusion of potential” by psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons) can affect us all.

In their 2010 book “The Invisible Gorilla,” Chabris and Simons wrote:  “The illusion of potential leads us to think that vast reservoirs of untapped mental ability exist in our brains, just waiting to be accessed…”   As they describe it, this illusion rests on a belief that “beneath the surface, the human mind and brain harbor the potential to perform at much higher levels, in a wide range of situations and contexts, than they typically do,” and moreover, that this hidden potential can be released with minimal effort.  (pgs. 186 and 210)

College counselors and admissions officers know that this illusion of potential thrives among high school students. It’s one of the factors underlying a student’s proclamation that “my academic record isn’t a true reflection of my real ability.” 

The illusion of untapped potential influences not only a student’s thinking about his or her performance in high school; the illusion is also operative in the broader context of the college application process. In “high school world,”  there is a corollary belief that individual potential, (though yet undemonstrated) will be recognized and rewarded when a student applies to college.  This accounts for the fact that students often submit applications to colleges for which they are academically under-qualified.

But because students are sometimes offered admission to colleges for which they appear underqualified, these incidents are taken as evidence that admissions committees do recognize hidden potential. For students (sometimes encouraged by parents caught up in their own wishful thinking), those rare incidents become the tiny acorns of example from which the mighty oaks of illusion grow. And because those outside the committee room rarely know the full context in which an admissions decision is made, students, parents, and college counselors don’t have hard information with which to dispute the theory that their hope rests in the unseen.

(Further complicating the issue is the fact that some people are inclined to disregard hard data when it supports an outcome they don’t want to contemplate. This characteristic isn’t limited to college applicants and their parents: remember the Republican bigwigs who, despite the significant and consistent polling information that forecast a win for Obama, chartered planes and flew to Massachusetts on election day, anticipating the victory party for Romney?)

The persistence of the illusion of potential within the admissions process doesn’t rest solely with applicants and their families, however. Other factors combine to maintain the illusion that it’s possible for undemonstrated potential to outweigh documented performance when admissions decisions are made.

First, it isn’t in any college’s best interest to discourage students – academically qualified or not – from applying. As long as selectivity remains an important aspect of a college’s reputation and bond rating, institutions have every incentive to generate as many applications as possible.

Second, the selection process is genuinely difficult to describe. It’s complex, institutionally specific, and subject to variables and priorities that change from year to year.  Further complicating the problem is that it is somewhat easier to describe what the process isn’t than what it is.  It isn’t completely objective, yet isn’t really subjective; it’s neither art or science; neither random nor rigidly formulaic; not capricious, but not governed by lock-step logic.  Within the field, many seem to have settled on “holistic evaluation” as a way to explain the selection process to prospects and applicants. While a perfectly accurate phrase, it doesn’t, alas, do much to dislodge the illusion of potential.

College admissions is not the only arena in which the illusion of potential operates – Chabris and Simon’s book offers many other examples. I don’t know if it’s possible to diminish the impact of the illusion of potential for the students with whom we work. Some of us may not even find that prospect desirable. It seems as though discouraging the illusion of potential is like trying to untie the Gordian Knot – but there may be an Alexander (or Alexandra) out there who will find this a worthy challenge.

The invisible gorilla and the college search

In the late 1990’s, two cognitive psychologists – Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons – conducted a study of visual attentiveness that has since become a landmark in the field. They set a simple task for study participants: watch a short film of people playing with basketballs, and count the number of passes made by the players wearing white.

Try it for yourself before reading further:


This study has been replicated many times since it was originally run, under many different conditions, and researchers have found that the results are largely the same. About half of the people who watch the film don’t notice the gorilla.

Chabris and Simon write about this perceptual error, called “inattentional blindness” in their 2010 book, The Invisible Gorilla. Expanding on the results of their study, they conclude:

“we vividly experience some aspects of our world, particularly those that are the focus of our attention. But this rich experience inevitably leads to the erroneous belief that we process all of the detailed information around us. In essence, we know how vividly we see some aspects of our world, but we are completely unaware of those aspects of our world that fall outside that current focus of attention.” (p.7)

The invisible gorilla study has a lot of relevance for the college search process, I believe. Just as selective attention (or inattentional blindness) hinders viewers from seeing the gorilla in the film, inattentional blindness can also hinder students from seeing great college options.

As students begin to get serious about the college search process, most start out with a group of colleges already in mind. They are schools that for one reason or another are already in the student’s field of awareness; they already have the student’s attention. These may be schools that their friends or relatives attend or have attended, or schools that have athletic teams the student follows, for example. As a student begins the college search, one might say that one of the college counselor’s jobs is to expand that student’s field of awareness – to direct his or her attention to other colleges which might be of interest, and to become aware of colleges that previously have been “invisible.”

A college counselor isn’t the only one who can do this, obviously. There are many people and resources in a student’s world to point out previously unnoticed college options. Once a student is in “search mode,” mailings from the Student Search Service, advice from friends, and information gleaned from time spent online (among other resources) can call a student’s attention to a college of which he or she was previously unaware. (Finding a reliable means of securing student attention is an ongoing challenge for college admission offices, never more so than now. That’s a topic for a future post.)

But, here’s where things can become sticky – some students (and parents) are more receptive to broadening their horizons than others. Some families enjoy exploring new options, and when a college they are not familiar with is suggested by a college counselor or discovered through another means, they eagerly follow up and check it out. On the other hand, those who believe a college with a name they don’t recognize isn’t a “good school,” will disregard those suggestions and limit the student’s college search. Those who fall prey to what I call the “familiar = good/unfamiliar = bad” response narrow the field before the exploration has really begun.

Of course, it may reasonably be argued that declining to consider colleges one hasn’t heard of by the time one reaches the junior year in high school won’t harm a student. Sticking with familiar schools is a viable and sometimes desirable option for students and families. Time available for research, financial considerations, and a variety of other factors may make the “tried and true” colleges the best choices for students.

For those who have the desire to (and luxury of) launching a broad college search, though, the process presents a significant learning opportunity. Moving beyond the criteria of familiarity and name recognition in the college search allows students the chance to develop research, comparison, and decision-making skills, and to broaden their self-knowledge. This is an ongoing theme of my blog, so for now, it will suffice to say that being open to the “invisible gorillas” in the college process (I know, not the best image…) can bring positive results.

Once our attention has been called to options outside our usual sphere of awareness, we often find that what was previously an unfamiliar name regularly resurfaces in our world. It happened just that way for student I worked with a few years ago. He told me about his experience, saying that he had never heard of (X) college before I suggested it to him, but once he started looking into it, the name kept coming up over and over. He’d hear references to it at family gatherings, see it mentioned in news articles, and discover that several people in his extended circle of friends and acquaintances had some connection to it.  This previously “invisible” college was out there all the time – it was just a matter of bringing it to his attention.

The work of Chabris and Simon demonstrates the limits of our attention, and their research shows that there “may be important things right in front of you that you aren’t noticing…” They make a strong point that bringing those things into view can help one make better decisions. (p. 241)

Their findings and advice are very apt for the college search process. Allowing room for the unexpected and unfamiliar can broaden and deepen a student’s research in useful ways. And sometimes that invisible gorilla can point the way to a terrific opportunity.

Spinning plates and forecasting the future

No matter which side of the admissions desk you are on, January is a particularly challenging month. Though each part of the admissions cycle brings its own tasks and stresses, January is the month when these jobs seem most similar to the plate-spinning act on the old Ed Sullivan show. So many things to keep in motion at the same time!

Counselors on the high school side, recovering from the frenetic activity of the fall (running all sorts of workshops and programs for seniors and their parents, shepherding the application processes of their students, writing letters of recommendation, and hosting college visitors) are dealing with the aftermath (good, bad, or deferred) from the early decision/early action rounds, talking with seniors and their parents who are concerned about the content and timing of first-semester grade reports being sent to colleges, and then, shifting perspectives entirely, gearing up in their work with juniors (and sometimes sophomores, too) who see college on their horizons in a more immediate way this semester.

On the college side, counselors who just finished a crazy run of travel, followed by early application reading and notifications, are consumed by the sprint to spring, during which the bulk of applications must be reviewed and “decisioned,” plans for spring travel and on-campus yield programs must be finalized, and prospects for the incoming class of 2014 must be attended to. And all while concurrently checking incoming enrollment deposits and performing the calculus involved with hitting their institutional enrollment targets.

On both sides of the admission desk, the activity devoted to assessing lives and contemplating future possibilities for those lives is intense.

Coincidentally, the topic of assessing lives and contemplating future possibilities is getting a fair amount of media attention right now, with the release of “56 Up,” the latest installment in the wonderful documentary series directed by Michael Apted. In preparation for viewing “56,” I recently re-watched the earlier films in the series. For those who aren’t familiar with the so-called “Seven Up” saga, the quick summary is that Apted has followed the same group of British men and women since they were children, interviewing them and producing a new film at roughly seven-year intervals. The original premise was linked to an exploration of the class system in Britain, and took as its starting point the maxim: “Give me a child when he is seven, and I will show you the man.” For more background, there is an overview of the films and an interview with Apted in this segment which aired Jan. 6 on the CBS Sunday Morning program. Spoiler alert: this segment samples from all of the “Up” films, so if you’d rather let the individual life stories unfold in sequence and maintain the suspense, watch the films (all available on Netflix) before you see this.

It has been fascinating to see the many and often unexpected twists and turns in the lives of the participants throughout the films. Character often remains consistent, as do patterns in professional pursuits across time, but the series, with its now decades-long perspective, clearly and beautifully demonstrates how lives unfold over time in unpredictable ways.

That’s not an earth-shaking insight, but it is something we often forget when we are consumed by the college admissions frenzy. The application and admissions process is all about assessing an applicant based on information from a short period in his or her life, and making a prediction about whether that applicant will thrive during the narrow frame of time he or she spends at a particular college. It’s outside the scope of the application review task – and certainly beyond anyone’s capabilities – to predict how a life will transpire across the years. And yet, as I mentioned in my previous post, we’re often tempted to read more into an offer of admission that we should; to see it as a validation of a student’s accomplishments and sure-fire prediction of success for the future.

When our vision is constrained by the short-term competitive drama of the admissions process, we lose the long view. We forget the fact (so capably demonstrated in the “Up” films) that the range of a life extends further than we can see at any one time. Moreover, we lose sight of the fact that the interval of applying to, being admitted to, and attending a particular college is only a small marker on the landscape of that life.

Apropos of this, the “Up” films point to an interesting cultural difference between the US and UK. Of the fourteen original participants in the “Up” films, six completed university degrees. One of the others started university and but left before earning a degree, and the rest never attended university. Yet all of the participants report that they are happy and satisfied overall with their lives, and none of them talk about the university experience or lack thereof as being a significant influence on their happiness. And regardless of social background and financial situation, the participants don’t focus on university attendance as a “must” for their children. Granted, the films were never intended to be a rigorous social scientific study, so one has to issue the usual caveats about small and unrepresentative sample size, the fact that the films have been edited with an eye toward a particular narrative arc, etc., but it is interesting that the topic of university admissions is so absent from the filmed interviews.

For that reason, among many others, I think anyone in the college admissions field will find the entire “Up” series makes engrossing (though lengthy!) viewing. Those of you with lots of applications to read in the coming weeks may want to defer the viewing till spring, though – once you start the series, it’s difficult to stop.