Book Review: The Invisible Gorilla

Photo: Torah in Motion

Photo: Torah in Motion

Paralegal Reena Basser, B.A., M.A., is a professor at Humber and Seneca colleges, in their legal programs. She reviews a book with useful science-based tips for paralegals.

Gorillas in our courtroom: Is truth too much to ask?

We deal with people everywhere in our practices: our own clients, the adverse party’s clients, in the courtroom, or in the mediation chambers. People are, well, tricky. They omit information, they tell the truth, but in a rather sloppy way, they jump to conclusions, they fail to see things “right in front of their faces” and a whole lot more of very problematic elements that cause enormous challenges for our profession.

But we don’t talk about this. This is not substantive law, it’s not practice management, but it is relevant and vital to our world; it’s people management and it often hurts. What to do?

My latest must-read addresses this challenge: “The Invisible Gorilla” is a remarkable book, both for its depth and breadth in the arena of memory, confidence, “jumping to conclusions,” and “inattentional blindness.” These address the people problem.

Watch the Bouncing Ball

The title refers to a famous experiment that demonstrates, in 1.5 minutes, how we often fail to see the obvious when concentrating on another task. The experiment is simple. Players Wearing either black or white T-shirts pass a ball in a small area. Observers are asked to count the number of passes made by the white-T shirt-wearing players only. At one point, a gorilla enters the stage, pounds its chest, and walks off.

This nine-second gorilla appearance was missed by 50% of people tested. The experiment repeated in different settings, in different countries. All results were the same: 50% of people asked fail to notice the gorilla. Check it out for yourself and test it out on those around you.

Witness Over-Confidence

And what about witnesses in the courtroom? The authors, university professors in psychology, discuss a rape trial. A woman who escaped her attacker testified that during the rape, she struggled to be aware of every facial feature of her attacker, so that later she could rely on her memory to reconstruct the attacker. At trial, she said, “I am totally confident that this man raped me. I am certain.”

The jury convicted Ronald Cotton and he served 10 years in prison before he was able to prove his innocence.

The victim was wrong. Very wrong. So much for assurance, confidence and all that seemingly good stuff. The lesson for we paralegals: use caution when you hear such terms as “I’m certain,” “I’m sure,” and other language that indicates bravado and false certainty. Use caution, whether with your own clients or when facing the witnesses of an adverse party.

Jumping to Conclusions and Other False Leads

Whether in your office speaking with a client, or in court with the adverse party, most people jump to conclusions. It happens constantly.

Another study discussed in “Invisible Gorillas” is the wide-spread myth of a connection between measles and autism. A celebrity, Jenny McCarthy, claimed that her son “contracted” autism after he received a routine vaccination. She based this claim on one widely discredited and dubious study. McCarthy later alleged that she had “cured” her son through diet and other homeopathic aids.

McCarthy made her claims so vigorously and publicly, that many North American parents refused to have their children vaccinated. Measles outbreaks became more common across the Unite States and Canada. The connection between autism and vaccinations has been discredited for many years. No evidence to support the claim has been found, in study after study. But the myth persists.

Don’t jump to conclusions, or allow your witness to jump to conclusions. If they do, reign them in; stop them in their tracks. It does not help your case. You can cross-examine witnesses with that approach in mind.

This is a useful book, and a great read. It will make you laugh, it will make you think. The value of scientific “studies,” the dangers of the anecdotes, and many other cautions, are useful to the paralegal practice and elsewhere in life — “I’m certain!”

The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us, 2010, by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, is published by Crown Publishing Group: New York, 2010.

Reena Basser is a professor of Legal Studies at Humber and Seneca Colleges, and a licensed paralegal with a practice in North York. She shows the video, “The Invisible Gorilla,” to her clients to entice them to tell the WHOLE truth.

 

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