On Topic: You just can't trust your memory

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March 28, 2014 | 3:30 pm

Before you read too far into today’s column, you should go to YouTube to watch Daniel Simons’s video. You’ll find it by searching for “selective attention test.”

The narrator will instruct you to count how many times players wearing white pass a basketball. Easy peasy.

But the trick — and you knew there was one coming, right? — is what you might not notice. An ample majority of viewers indeed do miss the misdirection in this 82-second video.

The point of the video, a staple of many motivational and team-building seminars, is what we don’t notice while we’re watching for something else.

That’s also one of the big messages in “The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us,” the book by Simons and fellow cognitive psychologist Christopher Chabris. We silly humans believe our memories — and by extension, our perceptions — function better than they really do.

The implications for when we make decisions that affect the managing of our business are enormous. We think we’re so astute, but maybe a lot of our judgments are no better informed than if we had tossed a coin.

Here’s one example from “The Invisible Gorilla”: The authors give us a list of words. One page later, they ask you to recall them, with the aim of writing down all 15.

Most likely, they note, you probably won’t get every one — most likely some of the words from the beginning of the list and some from the end. The middle tends to fade.

But then here comes the true test: Was the word “sleep” among the word on the list, they ask. Some 40 percent of the book’s readers will say yes, the authors predict.

But it isn’t. The list includes “bed,” “doze” and “snore,” but not “sleep.” (I had to go back to double-check.)

The authors contend that, just as in the basketball video in which “people see what they expect to see, people often remember what they expect to remember.”

And we think what we remember is as exact as if written in stone. Or caught on film.

According to a national survey commissioned by the authors, 47 percent of respondents stated they believed once a memory has been formed, “that memory doesn’t change.”

Some 63 percent replied that memory acts like a camera that accurately documents events.

But Chabris and Simons argue memory doesn’t perform that way at all. It doesn’t store every detail of an event, and the pieces it does keep it “associates” with what we already know.

We saw “bed” and “doze,” but we recall that what we certifiably, hands-on-our-hearts read was “sleep.” Our memory plays word association, in effect.

And those associations — and, again, those faulty perceptions built from them — continually can mislead us as long as we are convinced have absolutely perfect memories.

It’s good thing to bear in mind while contemplating everything from personnel evaluations to year-end projections: What we think we perceive is colored by something other than the actual facts.

That’s the big gorilla in the room.

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