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.

On knowing, choosing, and sneaking up on colleges

In August, two separate news items dealing with how we come to know something and how we make choices caught my attention.

In an OpEd piece in the New York Times, psychologist Daniel Wegner wrote that ” it feels as though I know something if I can find it with Google.  Technically, of course, I don’t know it.  But when there’s a smartphone or iPad within reach, I know everything the internet knows.  Or at least, that’s how it feels.”

I thought of the “curious feeling of knowing” Wegner wrote about when I subsequently heard that approximately 10% of people bought a car this past year without first taking it for a test drive.  (That’s up from about 6% of people who did so in the previous year.)  I understand that this would be an appealing option for people who would rather avoid the pressured sales strategies some auto dealers use, but this is also a great example of just what Wegner is talking about — because you research a car online, you come to feel you know it, so a test drive seems unnecessary.

The idea that the wealth of online information gives consumers the sense that they know a car so well that they don’t need the direct experience of a test drive before they buy it hit home for me.  I think this practice of making a decision based largely on information gathered online (I call this making a decision by proxy) can be seen as students choose colleges to apply to.

For the last few years, college admissions officers have commented on the increase of “stealth applicants” in their candidate pools.  With a “stealth applicant,” the admissions office has no previous record of that student requesting information about the college, attending a recruitment event, or visiting the campus, for example.  The application is the first contact between student and school.  Stealth applicants frustrate admissions professionals who track applicant interest to predict a student’s likelihood of enrollment, but the practice makes perfect sense from the student perspective.

High school students, eager and adept denizens of the online world, are often comfortable relying on the information they glean “remotely.”  Many students are stressed and busy during the senior year of high school, so substituting online research for more time-consuming contact with a college admissions representative or a potentially costly (and also time-consuming) visit to a campus, is undeniably efficient.  And as those of us who work with high school students know, the anxiety they feel about the future in general makes them crave the security of a decision — any decision — to give some shape and structure to the great unknown which is life after high school graduation.

It isn’t easy to live with uncertainly, and there are times in all of our lives when any decision can seem better than no decision.  This isn’t one of those times, though.  This can be a “teachable moment” if students can be encouraged to understand that the college search process isn’t just about building “the list” of schools to apply to.  This process is also about becoming discerning users of the many available sources of information as they make decisions, and most importantly, about learning to trust themselves to make a good decision, once all the information has been evaluated.

Here are a few suggestions for high school seniors who are in the midst of the choice process now:

*  Question your sources of information.  Much has been written elsewhere about the limited reliability of the many college discussion websites, where the posted opinions of a disgruntled few can lead one to think that they represent an entire student body.  I won’t rehash the drawbacks inherent in substituting college rankings and ratings for your own research, but I will point out that recent revelations of colleges falsifying the data they submit to the ranking agents further diminish the utility of these rankings.

*  Know when to say when.  More information isn’t necessarily going to make the decision process easier for you.  Psychologist Barry Schwartz has noted that an overload of options and a seemingly endless amount of information about those options can hinder our ability to make thoughtful choices, and lessen our satisfaction with the choices we make.  His book The Paradox of Choice is recommended reading for anyone who wants to pursue those ideas further.

*  Keep yourself in the picture.  When you’re looking at rankings or reading comments about colleges in blogs or on any of the opinion-based college information sites, it’s easy to be swayed by the power of the printed word.  And when your friends and relatives have 1001 opinions about colleges, it can be hard to develop and defend your own ideas about the suitability of a particular choice.  It’s hard to trust your own feelings and conclusions when it’s always possible to find a counter-argument or two.   But when you’ve done some prior thinking about the factors that are most important to you, and your research draws from multiple sources (including direct contact with a college, its students, and/or one of its admissions representatives) you’re ready to make a choice and move on to the next step…filling out the applications.

 

A shorter and slightly different version of this post appeared as an Op-Ed in the Oregonian newspaper, Sept. 29, 2012