Seeing things differently

How often, when you’re choosing what to order from a menu in a restaurant, do you ask your fellow diners: “What are you having?”  Or maybe instead you find that your fellow diners ask this question to you? How often, when making any decision, do we ask others for their perspective? Why do we do this?

In many cases, there is value in asking others for their view on a decision and the ELECTIA approach to decision-making encourages the appropriate gathering and use of other people’s perspectives. One reason that others’ perspectives can be useful to us is that we all perceive the world quite differently; indeed, surprisingly so.

How we see the world

Although we might believe, and might like to believe, that we see the world exactly as it is, our perceptions are in fact not a very good representation of reality. Instead, plenty of scientific evidence shows that our experience of the world is a construct that our brain creates, like an internal mental movie, which is partly based on the information that our brain receives from our senses, but which is also in large part based on our expectations, beliefs and assumptions.

One famous demonstration of this comes from the work done by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons on inattentional blindness. If you haven’t seen it before, click on this link and watch the video, following the instructions that are given at the start of the video very carefully.

This experiment, which became known as the “invisible gorilla” experiment (Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons published a book by this name) shows that we can sometimes not see things that are there. Roughly half of the people who watch this video don’t see the gorilla that walks right through the middle of the game of pass-the-ball! Why? There are two reasons:

  • First, we don’t see the gorilla because we are very focused on counting the passes between the players and so we aren’t paying attention to other things that are happening in the video. This highlights that our “spotlight of attention” (that is, the part of the world that we actually see) can become very narrow (very focused), particularly when we are concentrating hard on something.
  • Second, we don’t see the gorilla because we aren’t expecting to see a gorilla. Since we’re not paying attention to what’s happening in the game other than the passing of the ball, our brain makes an assumption about what’s happening and it “fills in” the other parts of our mental movie. We think that we’re seeing the whole game, but actually we’re not; we’re only seeing what’s happening to the ball and our brain makes a best guess about the rest.

How might this be relevant to our decision-making? Consider: is it possible that we might be so focused on one thing that we completely miss other important information? And: how might our expectations and assumptions influence what we do or don’t see?

Angry Cookie

Just as we sometimes dont see things that are there, we also sometimes do see things that arent there. This picture was on a birthday card that I received a few years ago…

Blog 14 media Angry Cookie

Looking at this picture, we don’t see just a cookie, instead we see Angry Cookie. We not only see a face on the cookie, we also perceive that the cookie has a particular mood or emotion. Our brains have evolved to expect, in effect to look for, certain things. One of those things is faces, hence Angry Cookie, the Virgin Mary on a piece of toast and Jesus in a tortilla.

Another thing that our brain looks for is partially hidden objects, since, for example, it would have been important for our ancestors to recognise that a lion hiding in some long grass was a lion, even though only part of the lion might have been visible. One consequence of this is that our brain sometimes assumes or “fills in” things that aren’t actually there. Consider this picture…

Blog 14 media closure principle

All that this picture shows is three incomplete black circles. However your brain “sees” a triangle that isn’t there. This effect can be used more creatively, for example with the logo of the World Wildlife Fund; once again, this picture shows only some black shapes (this time irregular) on a white background, however your brain automatically completes the picture and you can’t help but see the panda.

Blog 14 media WWF

Our brains also evolved to look for patterns and for causal relationships between events, and, as is the case with faces and hidden or incomplete objects, we have a tendency to see these things where they don’t actually exist. How might this be relevant to our decision-making? Consider: is it possible that we might perceive some things to exist when in fact they don’t?

A shape-shifting duck

Finally, we may sometimes see one thing while other people see something else, and this can result from having different expectations, assumptions or beliefs. I expect that when you look at the following picture, you will see a duck…

Blog 14 media duck or rabbit

You probably saw a duck and, if you did, it will be because I primed you to see a duck by suggesting that a duck is what you would see. But I could equally have primed you to see a rabbit and, if I had done so, a rabbit is what you would most likely have seen. If you haven’t already done so, look again at the picture above and look for a rabbit. What this shows is that we may sometimes see what we expect to see. And if others have a different expectation, they may look at the same thing as us and yet see something quite different.

Even if we look at the same thing and agree factually what it is, our different beliefs and experiences may cause us to interpret the same thing differently. Consider the following picture…

Blog 14 media different perspectives

I hope that these examples have persuaded you that we don’t see the world exactly as it is, and that we don’t all perceive the world in exactly the same way. We each see the world through our own “perceptual filters” or “lenses” and our different perspectives on, and interpretations of, the world mean that we each have our own personal version of reality, our own truth. This idea is recognised in one of the principles of the ELECTIA approach to decision-making, the principle that there is no one truth. As a result, even in the same circumstances and with the same information, you might make a different decision to me, whilst someone else might make a different decision again.

So what value is there in gathering external perspectives?

Here are some reasons to gather and consider external perspectives:

  • Understanding other people’s perspectives can allow us to more fully understand our own situation. Maybe others are seeing things that we’re not, or maybe they’re seeing things differently to us. By gathering other people’s perspectives, we are more likely to be able to identify our own assumptions, expectations, beliefs and biases. This can help us to constructively challenge (test) our own thinking. For this purpose, the best person from whom to get an external perspective could be someone who is independent or someone with an opposing perspective.
  • The experiences and feelings of those who have done something that we are considering doing are a much better predictor of how we are likely to feel if we do the same thing, or something similar, than is our ability to imagine how we might feel. One example of this is book and movie reviews. It’s hard for us to predict accurately how much we will enjoy a book or a film based on reading the back cover or watching the trailer. Luckily, for all but the newest books and films, the reviews of many other readers or viewers are usually available, particularly online. What other people, especially people who are similar to us, thought about a book or film is very valuable information to have when deciding what to read or watch.
  • Experts in a given topic can provide valuable information (facts) based on their expert knowledge and they can also provide an expert interpretation of the facts that are available; that is, because they are experts, they will see things differently to lay people. (However, don’t forget that even experts have their own biases, expectations, perceptual filters and so on!)

The ELECTIA framework contains questions within the aspect Well grounded to support the appropriate gathering and use of external perspectives. These are questions that you can ask both of yourself and of others:

  • Whose perspectives would it be relevant and appropriate to obtain?
  • How are others seeing this situation? What can I learn from understanding their perspectives?
  • What am I not seeing or considering that might be important?
  • What am I assuming or believing that might not be correct?

“So, what are you having?”

Let’s return to the question that is so often asked by one diner of another when we are ordering from a menu in a restaurant: “What are you having?”

Is what I’m having for dinner relevant to your choice? How so? We should gather external perspectives only when they add value to our own decision-making and we should gather external perspectives in a way that gives us the greatest value. Here are some ways in which gathering of external perspectives in this particular situation could be more relevant and useful:

  • Ask your fellow diners why they’ve chosen whatever they’ve chosen. What attracted them to their choice? Maybe it’s something that would also be relevant to you, but that you hadn’t considered.
  • Ask the waiter or waitress what other diners have said was good.
  • Ask the waiter or waitress what the chef (an expert) thinks is good.

Thinking about your own decisions, when and how can you get the greatest value from gathering external perspectives from others?

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