Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Eye Does Not See What You Think

Dull as it may seem to some, perception is central to everyone in our world and it colors our beliefs and herein lies the rub. If we misperceive something, think how we will react to it. Instead of seeing it as it truly is, we may become angry because our view of the situation has been colored by this inaccuracy of perception. What does this lead to? You guessed it. It leads to arguments, hurt feelings and even acts of violence. The current most egregious thing that someone can do is disrespect someone. Many times these encounters can end in gunplay.

But there are more aspects of perception than the ones that involve personal interactions.  Your brain wants things to make sense and when it sees something that doesn’t exactly fit a familiar pattern, it may fill in the bits to make the whole it desires.  Consider one example of a blue marking on the ground to outline where the handicapped car spots are. If the small concrete blocks at the front of the spot are also painted the same dark blue and the light isn’t that good, you may “see” that it’s just one continuous blue line. The blocks don’t stand out and you don’t lift your foot to avoid them and voila, you trip.

Something must clue you to the concrete blocks such as an upright sign right behind the block. You wouldn’t walk into the sign and that would prevent you from walking into the block. Take a look around your town and see where the disability spots are and if they are painted this way. If they are, what should be done? Are there specific rules for disability parking places that designate how they are to be painted and where the signs indicating the fines should be placed?

Spatial things, therefore, when painted the same color may deceive the eye. I recall that when I was teaching my students introductory psychology, I would screen a special film for them (“The Eye of the Beholder”) which illustrated how people misperceive and make judgments on these inaccuracies. In this film, starring one of the 40s-50s favorites, Richard Conti, the director had used various tints to subtly tell you what he was illustrating, e.g., green for envy, red for anger, etc. I would ask the students for examples where they might form opinions that were poor assumptions and based on outlandish beliefs.  In the film, the man is accused of murder because of circumstantial “evidence” that is misperceived by the other characters in the film and each has their own reason for this inaccuracy.

What do you know about Stephen Hawking? Yes, he’s an extremely brilliant scientist and yet cannot speak and has to use a special board to communicate. He also has ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) a usually fatal nerve disorder that Hawking has managed to beat thus far to the amazement of the medical community. But, if you saw Hawking in his wheelchair and using his voice board and didn’t know who he was, what would you think? Would you think he was brilliant or had an extremely low level of intelligence? You would make all sorts of assumptions and they’d probably all be wrong. You allowed your eyes to take over and what you saw colored what you believed about this nameless man.

Bias is also governed by perception. If you met someone who couldn’t read or write, what would you assume about him or her? Do you know that this same bias was used against people coming to America via Ellis Island? They were seen as illiterate and mentally retarded and incapable of learning. The result was steering into jobs that required only strong muscles and had no future hope of any promotion and, certainly, never into any type of job requiring education. The thought was that they couldn’t be educated. Were they right? Of course they weren’t and you can still find this type of thinking today.

The moral of this blog? Don’t be fooled by your initial perception. Look beneath the surface for the truth.