Nobody Expects the Spanish... err, a Chick in an Ape Suit

Ever wonder how people can be impaired drivers when their blood alcohol content is under the legal limit? This group shows us why. And who can resist an experiment involving a woman in a gorilla suit?

The question the researchers wanted to answer was whether a single drink could impair one's ability to notice something completely out of place. They gave participants a drink in a bar-like setting, then watch a video clip of a basketball game. The oddity was that partway through the clip, a woman in a gorilla suit wanders out to the middle of the screen, beats her chest, and walks off. Totally hot.

Clifasefi and colleagues at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, conducted the pilot study with volunteers between 21 and 35 years old. Half got plain tonic water. But the other half got vodka tonics stiff enough, based on their weight and gender, to raise their blood-alcohol content to 0.04 percent, or half the legal limit for driving in Washington. None of the participants knew for certain what they were getting.

Ok, I have a hard time buying that they couldn't taste the alcohol either. But then again I have a serious conditioned taste aversion to vodka for some strange reason. I think it started around college.

Each participant had 10 minutes to down the drinks. Then they were each shown a video of two three-person teams passing a basketball and asked to count the number of passes.

Among the participants, only four of those who got vodka, or about 18 percent, saw the gorilla. Of the tonic-only crowd, 11, or about 46 percent, spotted the ape.

Now keep in mind this is a tiny study and very preliminary. And I have to question how out-of-place a woman in a gorilla suit is at a basketball game where alcohol is being consumed; maybe drunk people ignore team mascots? Now THAT would be some seriously awesome science!

But, it does suggest that even one drink can result in a phenomenon called inattentional blindness (where out-of-place occurrences go unnoticed). If future studies confirm this finding, it would be worthwhile to determine whether this degree of inattentional blindness is enough to impair driving ability, and whether laws need to be revisited as a consequence.

For fun, you can go here and treat yourself to a few examples of inattentional blindness.

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I think I remember seeing that video from another study.

there where several players passing two balls around simultaneously so it was very hard to keep track of the number of passes. You had to concentrate very hard, which is probably why many people where too preoccupied to see the gorilla (which was walking right around the center).

don't know if it's the same video they used, though.

Yeah, it probably was pretty difficult. The press release said that only about half of the control group saw it!

Yeah, completely sober individuals had trouble with the gorilla suit. But then, sober people also didn't recognize that the person they were giving directions to suddenly turned into a different person, either, so you can't expect drunk people to be less change blind.

Yeah, and I think I'll hld out for studies with larger groups before I actually get excited. Unless a gorilla suit is involved again....

Three posts in a row starting with "yeah". What are the odds?

I believe experiments such as this one have already been repeated many times, each time to draw the same conclusion: when distracted, people tend to miss obvious things such as a person in a gorilla suit. They will swear to everything dear to them that there wasn't a person in a gorilla suit in the video. Which goes to show the trustworthiness of even well-willing folks.

Personally, I didn't see the guy in the gorilla suit until almost the last moment. If I were less of a skeptic, I'd probably have hypothesized that he had been mixed in to the video. After all, my gut instinct tells me that I couldn't miss a guy in a gorilla suit, now could I?

The point of the study was, though, to test whether one drink makes the person even less likely to see the gorilla. They did manage to demonstrate that.

Now the study suffers from a number of flaws. While it needs to be repeated and drastically expanded before conclusions are drawn, it is possible that they're on to something important.