Dr. Dan Simons in Plain Sight


Dr. Dan Simons is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois and the unbelievable Beckman Institute, which has been a beacon for the integration of disciplines around technology. Dr. Simons also has affiliated appointments to the departments of Advertising and Business Administration. In many ways Dr. Simons has become the 800-lb gorilla of the attention and perception literature due to his viral work on inattentional blindness and change blindness. My apologies to Dan who has undoubtedly heard this and every other gorilla pun one might imagine for the past 20 years since he and Chris Chabris first published their 1999 Perception article. But we’ll get to that.

Here, Dr. Simons introduces himself:

“So what high school did you got to?”  While born in the Bronx, NY, Dan grew up in St. Louis, MO. Apparently if you grow up in St. Louis that question: “What High School did you go to?” is fairly ubiquitous and seems to come up regularly between people from St. Louis.

I think.

Certainly, it would make some sense to know that high school info.  St. Louis is situated at a nexus of southern and midwestern culture in the United States. It is divided by sport teams teams and sporting activities (are you a hockey or baseball lover? Are you into Football or Basketball? Is Futbol really a sport and if so, are people in St. Louis into it or do they see soccer merely as the thing for people in Kansas City?) It has political and economic boundaries that certainly could reflect (or contribute?) to real and perceived divisions between the citizens of St. Louis. Moreover, Dan attended a very good public high school, LaDue Horton Watkins, that is nationally ranked among the most respected in the United States for its academic achievement.  Hence, his indication of attending LaDue could provide subtle indicators about who he is and how his background may have shaped his life. So if you are familiar with the intricacies of St. Louis culture, then maybe you’ll find it helpful to know that Dan is a Ladue-er (LaDue-ite?).

For everyone else, Dan attended a nice public high school that exposed him to some fairly enriching literature courses (by title and description many of those lit courses seemed to be consistent with a liberal arts college curriculum), a strong background in the humanities and writing, and a range of scientific ideas and practices.

I maintain the possibility that, much along the lines of some of Dr. Simons early experiments, I may have been missing some obvious additional element. So most likely this High School question and its meaning is accurate for St. Louisians. Or Dan is preparing a new paradigm of misdirection with scientific authority effects and I’ll shortly be receiving  some sort of consent form to request my willingness to be complicit in this research.

He also has smart and active parents who encouraged lots of intellectual thought. He describes something of his parents and their professional activities in this excerpt.

Like I said, smart, active parents. Because of the clear value to the community I’ll draw extra attention to the organization that Dr. Simons’ mom organized: Ready Readers! If you want to support their efforts reading to children and providing books to children, families, and schools that greatly need that assistance, I hope you’ll check out their website and help them to do what they do!

Ready Readers can be found here. 

Very quickly as an undergraduate at Carleton College, Dan began to get involved in a little bit of everything associated with Psychology. He loved it — he loved the intellectual approach of Psychology and the vantage Psychology afforded on scientific practices and processes. He was hooked and maintained that pursuit into grad school. First at Harvard University before transferring to Cornell to complete his graduate degree. The beauty of Cornell was an opportunity to work with and some amazing faculty in a variety of Psychological sub-disciplines. He worked directly with Dr. Frank Keil and developed (no pun intended, although Dr. Keil does developmental psychology…so maybe the pun was intended but subconsciously) his own approach with studies of object animacy and a sort of naive biology during the formation of biological concepts with pre-school kids. He interacted with the fantastic and influential Dr. Liz Spelke and picked up some of her approach to developmental cognition. He interacted with Dr. Ulrich Neisser, another brilliant and incredibly historically important person to cognitive Psychology. Dr. Neisser is also the research who created the inattentional blindness paradigm that Dan eventually employed in his future viral studies. He read the Purple Perils of J.J. Gibson and saturated himself with the culture and opportunities of a fantastic graduate program.  He participated in multiple labs and with multiple projects, forming an approach that is rooted in the history of Psychology and yet uniquely his own.

(*Quick aside on Gibson’s Purple Perils which are provocative and powerful in the history of Psychology. J.J. Gibson used to write these notes, questions, and musings as he thought about many of the critical psycho-philosophical issues underlying perception and cognition. He would distribute them to his colleagues from his mimeographed graphs which used, you guessed it, purple-ish colored text! He continued this practice for close to 20 years producing a massive collection of brilliant ideas and inquiries directed at producing a deeper understanding of perception. The Purple Perils are a beautiful glimpse into the struggle Gibson and his colleagues undertook as they endeavored to define the issues and paradigms so that the field of Psychology might advance on solid theoretical grounds. Dr. Simons keeps a very complete copy of the Purple Perils in his office, including many of the arcane papers that didn’t make it into the collection published online.)

Dr. Simons and others start to work on change blindness: that jarring set of experiments that effectively demonstrate that people are aware of significantly less of the world than is available to experience. Starting with the movie style of continuity errors and modest changes to a scene between edits, Dr. Simons and colleagues worked their way up to more unexpected and bizarre paradigms. Would someone notice if a person in a scene changed clothes, and was no longer wearing a colorful scarf? Nope. What if they switched to a different shirt? Nope. Would someone notice if the person that they were speaking to was unexpectedly switched mid-conversation? Nope. If paying attention to people passing a ball, would someone notice if a person sporting a gorilla suit walked into the middle of the melee, turned to the camera, pounded her chest, and then walked out? Nope. In experiment after experiment they mounted evidence of the limits of cognition and attention. We were blind to changes, blind to objects outside of a highly limited attentional set, and, most of all, unaware of just how much we were unaware of!

So what about that gorilla? Did it have to be a gorilla? I knew I would need to ask Dr. Simons about this. In my fantasy, I imagined that Chris Chabris and Dan Simons trotted out a number of different costumes. Godzilla mask? Nah, too fictional. Zebra mask? Uh-uh, too wishy-washy in color. What about a dark bunny mask? No, too Donnie Darko. Experiments require precise control and a commitment to vision, foresight, and careful calibration. My fantasy about all this was, of course, not even close to the truth.

Here, Dr. Simons describes why they used the gorilla suit in the renowned (and viral) Gorillas in our Midst (1999) study, starting with a comparison to the Ulrich Neisser video from years before:

Kind of amazing, right? Just this weird and wonderful  bit of happenstance, luck, and a carry-over from the history of Psychology! Jerome Kagan is an amazing and influential researcher. Many years earlier Dr. Kagan needed just the right costume to effectively produce moderate anxiety in children for his research on temperament.  While I shudder a bit thinking through all of that, it meant that he happened to have a gorilla costume sitting, unused and available, in his lab at Harvard. Simons et al needed something dark or black, they wanted something unmistakable, something eye-catching to complete their Neisser replication study. Kagan’s gorilla costume was recruited into Simons and Chabris’ Gorilla in our Midst making it the most influential gorilla costume in the HISTORY OF PSYCHOLOGY! Take that David O. Selznick! Sadly the construction of said costume is quite modest, and the original has since  fallen apart — to be replaced  again and again  across various demonstrations and replications.

The crazy thing is that this was so early in Dr. Simon’s career. He hit upon this viral research at the tail end of grad school and into the start of his career. He was not frozen in carbonite and his career has trotted on since then. He spent some years as faculty at Harvard, then more years at University of Illinois where he has remained. And his research has matured to looking at both issues in attention, but also major meta-science issues. He is leading efforts on replication and the critical movement to improve veracity in science through more open method review and more sound paradigms.

He describes some of his thoughts on replication here:

Shocking studies are fun and exciting, but the goal is to gain the most complete understanding possible from a full and transparent approach. Or put another way, to determine a science that meaningfully captures reality and illuminates its mechanisms. Dr. Simons has gained influence in Psychology from a viral experiment, and is using that influence to further the scientific in the aims of the field! Not too shabby for a St. Louis juggler.

Here are some of the wonderful publications from Dr. Simons:

Simons, D. J. (2014). The value of direct replicationPerspectives on Psychological Science9(1), 76-80.

Simons, D. J. (2000). Current approaches to change blindnessVisual Cognition7(1-3), 1-15.

Simons, D. J. (1996). In sight, out of mind: When object representations failPsychological Science7(5), 301-305.

Simons, D. J., & Ambinder, M. S. (2005). Change blindness: Theory and consequencesCurrent Directions in Psychological Science14(1), 44-48.

Simons, D. J., & Chabris, C. F. (1999). Gorillas in our midst: Sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events. Perception28(9), 1059-1074.

Simons, D. J., & Chabris, C. F. (2011). What people believe about how memory works: A representative survey of the US populationPloS one6(8), e22757.

Simons, D. J., Boot, W. R., Charness, N., Gathercole, S. E., Chabris, C. F., Hambrick, D. Z., & Stine-Morrow, E. A. (2016). Do “brain-training” programs work?. Psychological Science in the Public Interest17(3), 103-186.

Simons, D. J., Chabris, C. F., Schnur, T., & Levin, D. T. (2002). Evidence for preserved representations in change blindnessConsciousness and Cognition11(1), 78-97.

Simons, D. J., & Keil, F. C. (1995). An abstract to concrete shift in the development of biological thought: The insides storyCognition56(2), 129-163.

Simons, D. J., & Levin, D. T. (1998). Failure to detect changes to people during a real-world interactionPsychonomic Bulletin & Review5(4), 644-649.

Simons, D. J., & Rensink, R. A. (2005). Change blindness: Past, present, and futureTrends in Cognitive Sciences9(1), 16-20.

Simons, D. J., & Wang, R. F. (1998). Perceiving real-world viewpoint changesPsychological Science9(4), 315-320.

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