Friday, July 17, 2015

What you see is what you get?

Those non WISIWYG days!
WYSIWYG. "What you see is what you get" - a term that back in the 80s and early 90s was a
marketing tool for word processing software. What it looked like on the screen was what it would look like printed out. This was a big deal, especially in the days of dot matrix printers and giant beige screens!

WYSIWYG may be fine in vintage computing, but despite what we tell ourselves, the world is rarely exactly how we see it. We are constantly interpreting and filtering information, and often these filters change the picture we "see" dramatically - like a neural Instragram making pretty pictures in our mind.
"Despite what we tell ourselves, the world is rarely exactly how we see it"
In a recent article for Ipsos MORI called "The Perils of Perception", James Stannard and Bobby Duffy explore some of the ways that our mental filters mean we get the picture wrong. For instance, our worries about issues that concern us can skew our thinking. An example of this is a sample of Americans who thought that 25% of US teenage girls get pregnant each year, when the answer is just 3%. The concern people felt about this issue led to a significant overestimate of the percentage.

We often perceive things to be the wrong size
Stannard and Duffy point out that in terms of the relationship between physical stimuli and our response, people often overestimate small things and underestimate big things. This plays out in our national consciousness, for example people overestimating the extent of immigration or the number of people who observe a particular faith. No doubt these misperceptions and stereotypes aren't helped by the media!

As a result of our upbringing and environment we also all hold deeply held convictions about numerous issues. We have a particular mental framework through which we interpret the world. The problem is that we're often unaware of it, and we tend to exhibit "confirmation bias" when presented with information.

This term was introduced in the 1960s by the English psychologist Peter Watson in response to a series of experiments. Essentially he suggested that we like our beliefs about the world around us to be confirmed and not proved false. We do this by subconsciously focusing on data that confirms our beliefs and disregarding information that doesn't.
"We all tend to exhibit 'confirmation bias' when presented with information"
Phobias are a classic example - phobics display a confirmation bias for threatening information. Everything, for them, tends to confirm their phobia. As the proverb goes, "we don't see things as they are, we see things as we are". And as Bart Ehrman states "People almost always find what they're expecting to find if they allow their expectations to guide their search."

Straight after my degree I was summoned to undertake Jury Service at the local crown court. As the judge was at pains to point out at the end of the trial, we could only make our judgement based on the evidence. Both sides presented a compelling argument, but we had to be objective and boil the case down to the facts.

Outside of the courtroom it's not all that easy to be objective about things we're passionate about, or work we've produced. At it's worst, confirmation bias can lead us just to wishful thinking - a bit like the people who audition for X-factor and believe they're the next Whitney Houston but in fact can't sing a single note and are tragically brought down to earth by the judges.
"It's not all that easy to be objective about things we're passionate about"
I don't know about you, but I don't want to delude myself about my dreams, talents and ambitions. That's not to say that I'm just going to give up if I am more like the failed X-factor hopeful than the A-list talent I think I am, but that I just need to work harder at getting an objective viewpoint on my output.

It helps to get a different viewpoint to our own
This can also be hard, because everything inside screams at the thought of criticism and the vulnerability of people not liking your work!

But in the long run, the only way to improve is to find out which bits need improving, and the only way to do that is to get someone else's perspective.

Otherwise, like a talentless X-factor hopeful, our confirmation bias might go into overdrive and we'll believe our own hype! It's an iterative process - the more viewpoints we get on our stuff, the better it will be.

So what conventions do you need to challenge in your own life? Where might it help to see something from another perspective? Our challenge this week is to open up to some alternative views and different opinions from our own. It's in allowing our thinking to be challenged that we begin to step outside our own confirmation bias, and that's a good thing.
"It's in allowing our thinking to be challenged that we begin to step outside our own confirmation bias."


Thanks for taking the time to read What You See Is What You Get. If you've enjoyed it please share it with your friends on social media! Why not subscribe to The Potting Shed Podcast on iTunes for the audio version and much more (direct RSS feed is here). Please nominate my podcast for an award during July 2015 - press the big red button here.

I'd love to hear from you, so feel free to comment below or email me at 

If you want to stay up to date please sign up to my mailing list, and do check out my book Life Space on Amazon.

1 comment:

jeremy@thirstydaddy said...

great post. Preconceived notions are the bane of any real conversation. Its why so rarely do people change their opinions or take the time to formulate a well thought out opinion in the first place