August 02, 2004 The Times
Eureka! Thinking outside the bath ...
By Anjana Ahuja
You'd think anyone would spot a gorilla cavorting on a basketball
court - but you'd be wrong. And this inability to see the obvious
can prevent us from thinking more creatively.
THE SCENE of my humiliation was a pub in Hackney. As I sipped wine and chatted to my brother-in-law, I failed to see the cars with blue flashing lights pull up outside. I became temporarily deaf to the ear-splitting sirens. I somehow missed the snake of police officers who stormed the pub to drag away, from the other side of the bar, a tribe of wedding guests who had greeted each other with flying fists and diving foreheads. Most disappointing of all, I failed to observe the sobbing bride, fleeing the pub in a dishevelled, tear-stained meringue.
To this day I remain stupefied by how I, reputedly possessed of professional observational skills, could miss a police raid unfolding in the same room (all credit to Harry for the riveting gossip, I suppose). But Richard Wiseman, a professor of psychology at Hertfordshire University and professional magician, isn’t surprised at all. We are all guilty of missing the obvious, of failing to see the bigger picture because we are focusing on narrower tasks in hand.
While my lapse was an observational one, Wiseman believes the real problem in business is that no one is brave enough to step back from their day-to-day responsibilities and let their minds roam free. If they did, he says, they might spot a “gorilla”, a killer idea that can transform company fortunes and even change history.
A gorilla, Wiseman explains in his book Did You Spot the Gorilla? ,is a why-didn’t-anyone-think-of-that-before insight, a flash of brilliance that seems obvious once unleashed. Examples include Ikea— the idea of funky, cheap selfassembly furniture — and Post-it Notes, which stickered their way into ubiquity after an enterprising employee realised that the weak adhesive he had unintentionally developed might have a use after all. Other recent gorillas include the Anywayup Cup, a non-spill beaker for toddlers, and easyJet, the no-frills airline that has utterly changed the way we think about air travel. Wiseman labels their inventors Eureka thinkers (the Greek mathematician Archimedes was supposed to have shrieked “Eureka!” — “I have found it” - in his bath, when he realised that the volume of an object could be gauged by the amount of water it displaced).
“Why didn’t someone think of Ikea 20 years before the man who did think of it?” asks Wiseman. “It’s so obvious. He saw that there were a lot of people who couldn’t spend a fortune on furniture but still wanted nice well-designed, stuff. Until then, you had to go somewhere such as MFI, which wasn’t exactly known for its style. It’s a great example of a gorilla. And now he’s one of the richest guys in the world.”
Wiseman appropriated the primate in an allusion to a study carried out in 1999 by Daniel Simons at Harvard University. Volunteers watched a 30-second film of people playing basketball. Three players wore white T-shirts, three wore black ones. Viewers were told to count the number of passes made by one team. Afterwards they were asked for the tally, and whether they had seen anything unusual. Astonishingly, only a very few put their hands up; these individuals had seen something that should have been blindingly obvious to everyone: halfway into the film, a man dressed as a gorilla walked on court and beat his chest at the camera. Everyone else was so fixated on trying to count the passes that they completely missed this surreal moment.
Wiseman, 38, calls it a “perfect demonstration of an unbelievable psychological blind spot”. He has repeated the experiment numerous times, with the same result. “I’ve shown the film on normal TVs and also on massive projector screens, and most people still don’t see the gorilla,” he says.
Interestingly, by tweaking the set-up, he can coax an entire audience into missing the gorilla. “If I introduce a competitive edge, such as pitting men against women, I can get the number of people who see the gorilla down to 5 per cent.” It shows that, under pressure, we are even more likely to miss what is under our noses.
Worryingly, when Wiseman tried the experiment on the country’s top scientists at the Royal Society, not one spotted the hairy interloper. They, and Wiseman, could hardly believe it: “It’s amazing, isn’t it? In some ways it’s actually worse if nobody spots the gorilla, because you get accused of switching films. But on the other hand, scientists are extremely good at focusing.” Afterwards, Wiseman says, one well-known scientist thanked him for opening his eyes to the gorillas that he and his students might be missing in the laboratory.
Becoming a Eureka thinker often entails shedding our overwhelming desire to conform. For example, given a square sandpit with buried treasure and a shovel, where would you start digging? For me, it’s the bottom right-hand corner. Bad move, says Wiseman. Nearly everyone chooses the middle or a corner, or somewhere along a diagonal. That’s fine if that’s where the loot is buried and you get there first. But if the loot is somewhere else, it is the soul brave enough to dig in the undisturbed patch that ends up the richer. Similarly, when people are asked to pick a number between 1 and 10, most choose 5 or 7 (yep, I fell for that one, too). Asked to choose one between 1 and 50 that contains two prime digits (eg, 17) most choose 35 and 37 (I have to admit to Wiseman that I chose 37).
“It’s amazing that we all tend to think alike,” muses Wiseman. “It could mean that we’re all missing something. In fact, groups of people are no better because they share responsibility and often see things the same way.” In particular, companies are often built on conformity, which squeezes out original thinkers. Businesspeople — and scientists — tend to be good at sitting exams, which requires adherence to the notion of right and wrong answers.
Businesses can haul themselves out of creative ruts by throwing different
people into the mix. So advertisers planning ideas meetings should
invite Janice from accounts and Derek, the security guard, for their
fresh perspectives (provided Janice and Derek aren’t silenced
with fear at the prospect). And don’t expect people to have
sharp ideas at exactly 3.30pm, or whenever your meeting is scheduled.
“I recently gave a talk on creative thinking to a company, and it sent me an agenda,” says Wiseman. “It amused me somewhat. That’s not how creative thinking works. You’re unlikely to come up with killer solutions on schedule.”
That’s why he follows his own advice: if he gets stuck on something, he leaves it and comes back to it later. Sleeping on a problem is another good ruse — while dreaming, he says, disparate ideas come together in unexpected juxtapositions, and these weird links can generate novel ideas.
He is in great demand as a business speaker, mostly, he suspects, because his work legitimises the idea of taking risks. “It’s almost as if managers need permission to do this kind of stuff. It’s about saying it’s OK to take your time, not rush into solutions. It’s OK to ask people to do things that don’t seem particularly productive. Companies under pressure often go with the first solution they come up with, but who’s to say it’s the best?” It is not uncommon for innovation-based companies to allow employees to do their own thing for, say, 10 per cent of their time.
Wiseman suggests banning e-mail within offices as it has replaced the personal exchanges that can throw up unexpected leads. His tips for successful meetings include choosing four words at random and discussing them for a while, bringing personal experiences to bear (hint: have a life outside the office), coming up with more than one solution to a problem, and doing the opposite of what is done normally. He suggests, for example, that the next Times features meeting should involve everyone thinking up articles that will interest absolutely nobody. From such perverse deliberations, an absolute corker may pop out. Well, we can live in hope.
His book can be read in under an hour — it is lighthearted and full of quizzes to elicit a reader’s Eureka potential, along with tips for improvement. He wrote it as an antidote to the doorstoppers clogging up business bookshelves. “I fly to Edinburgh a lot, and wanted something I could read on a 55-minute flight. You get so many dull, 2in-thick books on creativity. Instead of putting people in the right frame of mind, they make you think of exams. I wanted to write something people would enjoy.”
At £6.99 a pop, it’s not a bad Eureka idea itself. In fact, Wiseman, who also wrote a bestseller on how to be luckier, is full of them. He’s thought up a fantastic wheeze for booklovers: since buying books for people is so difficult, and book tokens are such a cop-out, why not sell tomes containing the first chapters of 15 books with a token tucked away in the back? Bibliophiles are bound to want to buy more than one, he says, so the bookshop makes more money.
The point is that nobody got anywhere new by taking the road most
travelled. A year ago he subjected volunteers to a stress test that
involved packing them off to Oxford Street with a shopping list of
items they had to procure, such as a certain brand of trainer. The
person who came back with the most change from £40 was the winner:
“The idea was that this would put people under stress. But one
bloke took the £40, went to a casino and put it all on red.
He got back £80, went to the first shop, bought what was required
and came back. He had a completely different take on things. He’d
be the guy I’d want working for me; I wouldn’t care if
he lost £40 several times over if he pulled off a stunt like
that once in a while.”