Solution Focused Gorillas

In 2006 Cadburys poisoned 37 people with Salmonella and the treasured British company was brought to it knees. Fined millions, reputation in the trash, hostile take over talk, how could it ever recover…………….

Cadbury’s response was marketing genius they ran one of the most famous adverts of the past twenty years.

[You really should watch it (below) –  it’s amazing! It’s 4 and half minutes long (this link is a shorter version – but if you have the time watch the long one – it is sooooo worth it!]

The advert features no humans (Phil Collins excepted) and no chocolate, it just creates a warm positive enjoyable feeling exactly the feeling that Cadburys wants associated to their brand.

By honing down to base psychology Cadburys have distanced themselves from their Salmonella existential crisis.  The advert was entirely positive, feel good and very importantly simple. Cadburys chocolate will make you feel like the advert does.

The next video….. well…. watch it then I’ll tell you….

It features the very same gorilla as in the Cadbury advert (honest!) in the now famous experiment by Simon and Chabris (2009). In the experiment the focus of the viewer is requested to be entirely on the white team passing the ball, the human brain squarely focuses on its target to the deletion of everything else.

Nearly all test subjects fail to spot the gorilla but can count accurately the number of passes of the ball, as soon as you are told of the gorilla it is 100% obvious, as gorillas always are.

Before the gorilla starred in adverts and experiments, he used to live in the jungle where he met famous primatologist (monkey expert) Diane Fosse.

The male gorilla before Fosse (and others Sigourney Weaver etc) had always been considered to be totally dominant in sexual situations with the female subservient and vulnerable.

As Matthew Syed points out in his excellent Rebel Ideas (2019) however, primatology was full of stuffy bearded men in the Charles Darwin mould who had a massive blind spot about female activity. They accepted the dominant view and importantly had no interest in challenging it creating a jaundiced perceived wisdom. Syed observes that it was not until a critical mass of female scientists entered the field that the frame of reference shifted and female gorillas were found to have agency and power, and, could select a range of sexual partners.

The story of this gorilla I feel is useful to solution focused work as it makes clear a very important point.

“You see what you aim at”

This quote by, at times controversial, psychologist Jordan Peterson I feel holds a lot of weight for social care. The power, and indeed ‘blindness’, that can be achieved by a clear focus is both useful and dangerous.

Here are some examples –

The social worker whose main focus is the assessment rather than supporting lasting and client led change, or the family whose only focus is to seek the end to the intervention never questioning or considering possible future directions or opportunities.

Conversely the focus on one particular issue for a period of time can yield results as nobody can deal with many problems all at the same time (I’m sure many of us have all been to child protection or adult safeguarding meetings where the list of identified issues is long).

To balance this I feel as social workers we need a wide lens to be open to risky ideas that will reverse challenging situations (Cadburys),  we must be brave not to fall under the cloak of perceived and dominant thinking (Dianne Fosse) and to be focused on the detail but not to miss the gorilla in the room (Simon and Chabris).

George Bull

George is a Social Worker at the Connected Carers Team South Tyneside. He has been a social worker for 10 years working mainly in child protection and Early Help. He has lectured with Jamie Scorer at New College Durham, University of Sunderland and University of Northumbria in solution focused practice.


Simon and Chabris (2009)

Rebel Ideas, Syed (2019)

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