David Altshuler, M.S.
(305) 978-8917 | david@davidaltshuler.com

Take Them at Their Word

"The play begins at two o'clock," I told my literature class. "This information is so important that I have included it on this quiz that I am about to hand out."

Thirty students nodded their heads appreciatively.

"The first question on the quiz is, 'What time does the play start?' The answer is 'two o'clock.'"

Thirty students looked me in the eye, grateful to know the answer to the first question on the quiz.

"I have written '2:00 pm' on the board," I droned on. "And what time does the play begin?"

Thirty students, now beginning to get bored with the repetition of the same information, looked at the black board and responded in unison, "Two o'clock."

And when I graded the quizzes, 30 students had answered the first question correctly. "What time does the play begin?" "Two o'clock."

But there were 31 students in the class.


What is to be said about the thirty-first student, the one who got the question wrong? What can we say about the student who didn't see "Two o'clock" written on the board, who didn't hear me say "two o'clock" repeatedly, who didn't hear his classmates say "two o'clock" in unison?

Before we address this student, I'd like for you to take a short quiz for me. There's only one question. Click here for Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris's quiz.

I'm begging you. Before you read any more of this essay, click on this link and answer the question. The rest of this post won't make any sense if you don't take the quiz first.

Spoiler alert: If you haven't clicked on the link to the quiz by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris, you're going to have to stay after class and clap erasers. The video takes barely over a minute. Please click on it now. I'll wait right here.


Back? Thank you for clicking on the link and watching the video. Did you count accurately the number of times the children in white threw the basketball? I didn't. I only counted 13 passes. Apparently, there were actually 15.

But did you see the gorilla?

Neither did I.


"She never said anything about the math test. I swear. Not a word. How did the other kids know there was a math test? I don't know. She must have talked to them after class. That's the only thing I can think of. Because she never said anything during class. I promise. Yes, I listen in class, mom. Of course I pay attention. What do you think I am, stupid?"

You have to take this child at his word. He is telling the truth. As far as he is concerned, the teacher made no mention of any upcoming math test. And of course, you have to take his teacher at her word too. She did announce the math test. She probably wrote it on the board: "Math test tomorrow!" Maybe she even had all the kids repeat it out loud, in unison, "Math test tomorrow!"

But this kid, the 31st student, didn't attend to that stimulus. Maybe he was thinking about the homework he has for Chemistry; maybe he was thinking about whether or not Tommy likes Lisa; maybe he was trying to work out the Grand Unified Field Theory; maybe he was listening to a sparrow burp in Broward County. But he didn't hear anything about a math test and, as a result, he didn't study and he didn't do well.

You can yell at him all you want. "Why don't you pay attention? All the other kids knew there was a math test!"

Or you can acknowledge that, with a trillion neurons each, no two brains are the same.

And that not everyone sees the gorilla.



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