Do We See What is There or What We expect to See?

Do We See What is There or What We expect to See?

Do we see what is there or what we expect to see
Optician eyeglasses being cleaned by tiny figurine symbolizing clear vision

Do we see what is there or what we expect to see?

All too frequently, our ‘vision’ is clouded-even blinded by our biases, predudices and preconceptions of what is before us. In other words, we see what we expect to see. That fact is one of the primary causes of human error- whether medical error and negligence, pilot error or wrongful conviction. True because we unconsciously form causal connections based upon single events. And our senses dull as we view the familiar and ordinary. At times, so completely that we are blinded to the extraordinary.

Our perception of the world around us is the primary ground from which we make decisions. About our world, our lives and ourselves. Like many of us raised in the last century, I accepted the axiom that we are logical thinkers. Until I began to put together my experience with my doctoral research.

It’s natural to assume we are logical creatures because we’ve been schooled in Aristotle’s defintion of man as a “rational animal” and Descarte’s Cogito Ergo Sum- I think therefore I am. The same Descartes who performed autopsies on live dogs, the euphemism “vivisection” sounds far more rational, doesn’t it? He claimed that their screams were merely neurological responses by non-rational organisms who could feel no pain.

Remarkable, isn’t it? The power we cede others to shape our view of reality and our world? Don’t be too hard on Renee, after all, he lived during the phase of human development called the Enlightenment. The dawn of man’s self-deification. Descartes would be stunned to learn the truth about the animals he tortured, if he were capable of accepting the breadth of his ignorance and cruelty.

Just as we will be when we finally grasp the vast barbarism of abortion and accept our complicity in denying billions of precious tiny humans even anesthesia as we dismember them. Done, of course, under sterile condtions by physicians whose oath once pledged, Do No Harm, as their first axiom.

Forgive that segue please- the parallel is irresistible.

Decision making theory has been fascinating to me ever since I knew it existed.

True for many reasons but primarily because my early years were spent in critical care nursing. And then later, administration. Both are fields where decisions can be matters of life or death. For over three decades, I worked with physicians. These men and women are ostensibly the at the top of the heap of human rationality and considered to be the quintessence of reason. But the truth is that doctors are no more, and at times, are far less, “rational” than non-physicians. Frequently, their medical decisions are based on emotion-ego- rather than data-or even facts.

Just like the rest of us.

While working on my doctorate, I discovered the Nobel Prize winning Garbage Can Model of Decision-Making developed by Cohen, March and Olsen. The researchers confirmed my experience of chaotic and frequently irrational decision-making by the top health-care adminstrators. The researchers mathematical model defined academic organizations this way:

“In the garbage-can theory (Cohen, March, and Olsen 1972) an organization “is a collection of choices looking for problems, issues and feelings looking for decision situations in which they might be aired, solutions looking for issues to which they might be the answer, and decision makers looking for work”. Problems, solutions, participants, and choice opportunities flow in and out of a garbage can, and which problems get attached to solutions is largely due to chance.

Maybe you wonder if things have gotten better in the 21st century? After all, we swim in a surfeit of information, surely all that information mitigates bias. And contributes to more logical decsionmaking?

The short answer is no-not now or ever.

Decision theorist Daniel Kahnemann explains.

…the concept of rationality is a technical, mathematical concept. It’s a logic. And it is actually completely not possible for a finite human mind to be rational or to obey the axioms of rationality. You’d have to know too much. The difficulty of being consistent in all your beliefs is impossible. And if you are not consistent in all your beliefs, you can be trapped in an inconsistency, and then you’re not rational. So the concept of rationality, the technical concept of rationality, is psychologically nonsense…

…Our beliefs do not come from where we think they came. And let me elaborate on that sentence. When I ask you about something that you believe in — whether you believe or don’t believe in climate change, or whether you believe in some political position or other — as soon as I raise the question why, you have answers. Reasons come to your mind. But the way that I would see this is that the reasons may have very little to do with the real causes of your beliefs.

So the real cause of your belief in a political position, whether conservative or radical left, the real causes are rooted in your personal history. They’re rooted in who are the people that you trusted and what they seemed to believe in, and it has very little to do with the reasons that come to your mind, why your position is correct and the position of the other side is nonsensical. And we take the reasons that people give for their actions and beliefs, and our own reasons for our actions and beliefs, much too seriously.

Why we contradict ourselves and confound one another
If that isn’t sufficiently persuasive,

consider Amy Herman’s concept of visual intelligence. Amy’s book, Visual Intelliegence, a NY Times best seller.

This expert on “looking,” doesn’t use my phrase, “we see what we expect to see.” Instead, when asked, “What is it you wish more people knew?”

Amy replies, “I wish more people knew that what they see, isn’t always what’s really there.”

The art historian and attorney uses her knowledge of art to train professionals like doctors, detectives, and CEO’s through her course, The Art of Perception. Amy’s website explains: “Visual intelligence is the concept that we see more than we can process and it’s the idea of thinking about what we see, taking in the information and [asking] what do we really need to live our lives more purposefully and do our jobs more effectively? I work across the professional spectrum. So I work with police officers and intelligence analysts and doctors and nurses and librarians, but what’s interesting for me is that the four A’s are applicable to all of that. And what they are is any new situation, any new problem, any new client, any new transaction, any new environment that you’re in you practice the four A’s.” Read more

Daniel Kahnemann’s statement,

So the real cause of your belief in a political position, whether conservative or radical left, the real causes are rooted in your personal history. They’re rooted in who are the people that you trusted and what they seemed to believe in, and it has very little to do with the reasons that come to your mind, why your position is correct and the position of the other side is nonsensical. And we take the reasons that people give for their actions and beliefs, and our own reasons for our actions and beliefs, much too seriously

bears repeating again and again.

2 Comments

  1. Mary B says:

    I always look forward to Sundays and reading a new piece authored by Lin. She never disappoints. Today’s article reminded me of how differently my husband and I see the world. He, always the logical one. Me, seeing with the eyes of my heart. After reading this, I will be asking myself if I am viewing from the political, religious or cultural lens. Thank you Lin. Keep the ideas coming!

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