According to experiments conducted by psychologist Daniel Simons, many of us are affected by a condition known as “change blindness.”
An experimenter on a city street asks a complete stranger for directions. During the conversation a pair of lab assistants walk between the experimenter and the stranger, and completely block the stranger’s view. At that moment, one of them changes place with the experimenter – so that the experimenter walks away with one lab assistant while the other lab assistant continues the conversation with the stranger.
The stranger is now talking to a completely different person and – in most cases – doesn’t even notice. They continue with the conversation, unaware that the person who first started it with them has been replaced. They give his replacement the directions he never asked for, and they go on their way.
In 2009, according to results published in The Journal of Perceptual Psycholgy, Dr. Simmons’ wife Robin began to suspect that their marriage was also an elaborate experiment in change blindness. She had noticed on several occasions (she reports four) that her husband had come home with a completely different haircut. On six occasions he was would ask her to pass the butter during dinner, causing her to momentarily look away to find it: when she looked back, he was suddenly dressed in a gorilla suit. On three occasions she woke up in bed with a woman in his pajamas.
“I should have been suspicious,” she told The Chronicle of Higher Education, “when our wedding vows had to be approved by the Human Subjects Committee. But he told me it was a Jewish tradition.”
In a 2010 rebuttal, published in the same journal, Dr. Simmons rejected the charge, stating that he and Robin were soul mates who would probably notice each other growing old together. He dismissed Robin’s accounts of the abnormality in their marriage by pointing out that she was a lecturer in literary studies, a discipline noted for its poor scientific reliability.
At a 2010 summer conference on advances in cognitive-behavioral therapeutic techniques the Simmons’ sat on a panel discussion about the psycholinguistics of their 10th wedding anniversary, and according to multiple sources (Davidoff 2011, Marquett 2011), Daniel Simons briefly ducked under his desk and was replaced with a lawn gnome, although other witnesses (Cavenaugh 2011, Bennis 2011) report never noticing. Robin Simmons’ account of the panel, published in that quarter’s Paris Review, called the experience “emblematic of the crisis of masculinity in early 21st century literature and pop culture.” Her article never specifically mentions a lawn gnome, but several letters published in the following issue of The Paris Review said that it was implicit in the subtext. One letter even called it “offensively so.”
According to media reports Daniel Simmons is now attempting to divorce his wife by having a court summons delivered by a monkey dressed in a tie travelling in a hot air balloon, followed by a survey on which detail (monkey, tie, or balloon) she notices. The experiment has yet to establish any confirmed results, however, because the lab assistants do not recognize Robin with her new haircut and the monkeys are poorly trained. A grant from the National Institute of Science has been used to develop a comprehensive database of Robin’s hair styles, and to create an algorithm that will user 15 years of People Magazine covers to predict her next haircut. Preliminary predictions suggest that she will next date Brad Pitt, but that may be the result of a subject bias in People Magazine. Dr. Simmons has suggested adding some National Geographic covers to the mix, and the Department of Defense has indicated that if the computer identifies Robin as a terrorist they will purchase the system.
In an interesting post-script, Psychology Today reports that one of the monkeys escaped Dr. Simmons’ lab and is believed to be planning to rob a bank.
Robin is scheduled to give a presentation on “lesbian comma usage” at the Modern Language Association’s annual square dance.
Daniel Simmons was last seen preparing for an experiment that he said will irrevocably change the world, and that no one will notice. He was unable to obtain a grant.
Benjamin Wachs has written for Village Voice Media, Playboy.com, and NPR among other venues. He archives his work at www.TheWachsGallery.com.
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