Think For Yourself: Perception

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This week IA critical thinker John Turnbull takes a look at human perception and examines the accuracy of memory.

‘There is no truth. There is only perception.’ ~ French novelist Gustave Flaubert.

‘Perception is reality.’ ~ Republican political advisor Lee Atwater.

‘Miracles happen every day, change your perception of what a miracle is and you’ll see them all around you.’ ~ Philosopher and musician Jon Bon Jovi.

Three quotes about perception; each one correct in their own way. Or are they?

What the hell are you talking about? I’m very perceptive.

Of course you are. Let’s pretend we’re talking about other people…

Clinical Neurologist Steven Novella puts it thusly:

‘Our perceptions and memories are deeply flawed and biased. There appears to be almost no limit to the extent to which people can deceive themselves into believing bizarre things.’

Michael Mosley explains it nicely (ignore the blurry dude after 4:35):

Add to this the limitations of the human eye – the angular resolution of healthy human eyes is around one arc minute. This is equivalent to a line one third of a millimeter wide drawn on a piece of paper and held at arms length. This is what you see in detail – your brain fills in the rest based on what you’ve seen before and a bunch of assumptions known as cognitive bias.

Think about that for a minute — you see less than 1% of the world in detail at any one moment. Your brain makes up the rest.

If this sounds implausible to you, hold out your arm and stare at your thumbnail. Without moving your eyes (which can be somewhat difficult) try to discern fine detail of something six inches to the left of your thumb.

Cognitive bias: An introduction

A cognitive bias occurs when pre-existing opinions or beliefs effect the way people interpret data or situations. An example of this would be if someone is highly religious, they are more likely to believe that a narrowly-avoided road accident was divine intervention rather than a combination of good fortune and driving skill.

Everyone has cognitive biases and in fact they often provide a useful shortcut in a decision making process. Just as a vegetarian isn’t going to waste time considering the succulent meat options on a menu, a science-based medical practitioner isn’t going to waste time looking for supernatural causes of an illness.  

On the other hand, if your cognitive biases are causing you to make poor decisions, like refusing science-based medical care in favour of pseudo-scientific rubbish, then you’ve got a problem.

Or as a philosopher who is fond of Microsoft PowerPoint™ might put it:

So what’s this Cognitive Dissonance I feel?

Put simply, cognitive dissonance results from holding two contradictory ideas or beliefs. If you’re a devout catholic who believes in a woman’s right to choose, you’ve probably experienced moments of cognitive dissonance.

From Simply Psychology:

Cognitive dissonance refers to a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors. This produces a feeling of discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance etc.



For example, when people smoke (behavior) and they know that smoking causes cancer (cognition).

Leon Festinger (1957) proposed cognitive dissonance theory, which states that a powerful motive to maintain cognitive consistency can give rise to irrational and sometimes maladaptive behavior.

To put it another way; have you ever taken home office supplies or downloaded something illegally from the internet? How about speeding? Chances are that you felt a moment of cognitive dissonance — you knew that these actions were wrong, but you justified them in some way to continue to do what was easiest.

What about Confirmation Bias? What’s all that about?

According to Science Daily:

Confirmation bias is a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions, leading to statistical errors.

Confirmation bias is a type of cognitive bias and represents an error of inductive inference toward confirmation of the hypothesis under study.

Confirmation bias is a phenomenon wherein decision makers have been shown to actively seek out and assign more weight to evidence that confirms their hypothesis, and ignore or underweigh evidence that could disconfirm their hypothesis.

A good example of Confirmation Bias is the full moon fallacy – ask people who work in emergency rooms what happens during full moons, and many will tell you that the place goes crazy. If you check the activity logs however, you find that full moons are on average no busier than any other night.

What happens is now and again a crazy night will coincide with a full moon, and people will remark upon this and remember. When it’s a crazy night on a waning moon or quiet on a full moon nobody will notice, and the fallacy continues.

A ha! I’ve got you there! I have a photographic memory.

Really? Most people don’t. And that includes you. The closest thing in real life to a photographic memory is known as eidetic memory, but while detailed this is far from picture-perfect. You can certainly take steps to improve your memory, but if you expect to remember what colour tie your boss was wearing on January 7th, six years ago you’re kidding yourself.

Rubbish. I remember things better than anyone I know.

Good for you.

That may be so, or it may just be confirmation bias. But you need to appreciate that your memory is not infallible. Every time you recall a memory, the memory changes slightly in the recollection, like the telling of a story. Your brain will make little embellishments in the service of forming a coherent narrative and these additions will be remembered as part of the memory the next time you recall it.

In Summary

Understanding the limitations of the human condition gives us something of a big picture view. If you’re raised to believe that the land your neighbor lives on is yours by birthright and he believes the same of your property, but also that you should die for worshipping the wrong deity, it’s going to be difficult to reach a solution where everyone walks away happy.   

The human brain is not a computer. It is a remarkable feat of evolution, but the better we can understand it then the more likely we will be to be able to improve it. Memory is fallible (particularly as you get older), which is why it’s important to write things down.

Think for yourself. Always. But now and again, take some time to think about how you think, and whether your decisions are influenced by your cognitive biases. If you can stand the introspection, it’s an interesting thought experiment.

So who was right about perception? It was Bon Jovi, wasn’t it?

In terms of the introductory quotes, Flaubert is probably the most accurate, in that human perception is flawed and our brains fill in a lot of gaps. Atwater is correct in the political and corporate sense, in that shifting perceptions of a leadership or company can become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Bon Jovi is correct in the most depressing of ways — if you abandon critical thinking and the scientific method, any number of explainable things might seem like miracles.

Ask Bill O’Reilly:

‘Tide goes in, tide goes out. Can’t explain that.'

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