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.