The sky is not blue. Almost everyone knows this, it's part of primary education. The blue colour we see during the day is simple air molecules refracting the colour blue from the spectrum of light emitted from sunlight. But when asked what colour the sky is; almost everyone will respond by saying “blue”. Because that's how it appears to be, and thus that's how we as people perceive it.
I've chosen this example for a very good reason. The sky is one of the constants that applies to every human. A universal truth if you will. You are familiar with the turn of phrase “we all sleep under the same sky”. And yet on a daily basis that truth lies to us, and we say “the sky is blue”.
The point I'm trying to make, is that if a fact that we view as unshakeable is a lie; then what else are we wrong about? And importantly, why do we insist on calling it blue, even when we know it isn't?
Consume, Consume, Consume
Human perception is a delicate thing. The way our mind processes the information given to it by our senses and turns them into what we see, hear and feel is tremendous and complex. But what is equally tremendous is our ability to lie to ourselves through these processes. Every day they can go a bit screwy. You hear a shout, and for a second think you heard your name being called. The blood pumps a little faster in your leg; and you convince yourself it's your phone vibrating.
Our brains are fascinated by input, they're obsessed with it. They seek it out even when we are asleep. Human beings live by the way they perceive the world around them. But what is perhaps more fascinating, at least to me, is how our minds turn that input into decisions and opinions. And how once we've decided what they are, how rigid we become towards altering them.
Now, there is no single way in which every person comes to these decisions. Each individual creates their own impressions in their own way. That is to say, we are all at a point on a scale. And while we each go about how we make decisions uniquely, we all use the same tools, and thus there are systems for how we do that.
What I'm going to talk about here is Social Perception. Essentially it is what;
“allows individuals to make judgements and form impressions about other people”
But crucially these impressions are what leads to our judgement about situations, news, art, politics, and of course, the other human beings who share this world with us.
There is a number of ways different people form these different opinions. We are going to look at them here in some detail. And show not only why we think the way we do, but explain why the sky is in fact blue.
It is important when assessing our perceptions that we classify the subject into categories. These categories are;
1. Purpose, why are we making a judgement.
2. Social context, what situation is the behaviour we assess is exhibited in.
3. Memory, how are recent memories relating to our perception influence what we are currently experiencing. (for more information on how we form memories please see The Nature of Selective Memory, my previous post.
So let's begin.
Much of our Social Perception comes from automated responses bases on opinions and decisions we've already made. It is rare that we will come across a situation which we cannot immediately link to something familiar we have experienced or that is directly related to something we already “know”. This is known as Consistency Theory, and can actually be quite scary when you look at it in detail. For when we see how quick our minds are programmed to jump to conclusions, you can't help but call into question any conclusion we make.
It is significant also to note, that the personality modules I'll be describing apply to almost all of us, and those that don't apply to you, undoubtedly correspond to how another would form their opinion. So don't beat yourself up if you notice that you fall into these categories. Because everyone does, in one way or another.
SO, how to we decide what we think about something before we even know we've decided it? Well, for example, if we feel strongly about an action a certain person made, we are more likely to feel the same way about their next action.
Put it like this; you support a football team. And the manager buys a player whom you love, he plays football exactly the way you like to watch, and in your mind, before you've even seen this player on the pitch in the colours, you think its a good signing.
Now, two weeks later the manager signs another new player. They're from a different corner of the world to the previous signing, they play the sport in a completely different manner, they even look totally different. But, because you liked the previous signing, your brain is automatically programmed to like this one as well.
This kind of opinion is usually the easiest to change. And usually a quick snap to reality, ie watching that player play. Will allow you to form your own opinion again. But what is your don't get the chance to watch? What if you miss the news? (though that's a near impossibility in this day and age) Will you go on thinking you agreed with someone's decision simply because you agreed with it last time?
This goes even further, though. Because our brains like tying things together into neat little bundles, if there are two traits which are descriptively similar we will associate them anyway despite their intrinsic differences:
An example of two traits that are descriptively similar are "sceptical" and "distrustful".An observer using descriptive similarity to form an impression of a "sceptical" person would most likely also believe that person to be "distrustful", because these two traits similarly describe a person who questions what other people tell him.
So you see, as much as society abhors “jumping to conclusions” our minds are programmed to do just that automatically. And oft times we do so without even realising we've done it, and simply continue on, utterly oblivious to our knee-jerk reaction.
This goes a step beyond, as when we have already seen proof that a person behaves in a certain way. We immediately form other opinions about them based on these conclusions. For a stark example; lets look at refugees.
Opinions and Decisions
Many people have grown concerned that with the influx of migrants moving into Europe from the Middle-East that many of these people may have “terrorist sympathies”. Specifically related ISIL or the “so-called” Islamic State. Now, it is undeniable that the men who have committed these acts of war against European cities are from these places. And so, many people end up supposing that many of these refugees are in fact “terrorists”.
Now while we liberals may be outraged by this mode of thinking it is important to note that the people making these assumptions aren't entirely to blame. Their brains are programmed to make these links and jump to these conclusions based on past evidence. (Not to mention the emotional sway of our memories. In a crunch, we are more likely to call upon facts that scares us, than one that has no emotional value.)
Another way of putting it on a day to day basis is this; a person starts a new job and is late a few times. We infer to ourselves that this person is lazy. Simply because they didn't push hard enough to be on time. It is only after getting to know this person we may learn that there commute is a nightmare, or maybe their car broke down, or they missed their bus. There are so many possible reasons, but humans will jump to the one which can be confirmed by their past experience. Even if that past experience is wholly incomplete.
Our brains make assumptions based on the evidence we already posses not on evidence we might receive but haven't yet. So similarly a person who has no Muslim friends or acquaintances, will make assumptions about an entire race based solely of the evidence they have been exposed to.
Observing the Categories
Now, I have chosen quite an extreme example, but human beings work on extremes most of the time. And it is important to note that most of the time, people will make assumptions based on descriptive similarities first. Being, sceptical = distrustful. But, in a crisis, or while making a kind of snap decision, we will rely on our evaluative process first, ie late therefore lazy.
Not everyone makes decisions like this all the time however, it all comes back to the categories I listed above, and that will decide which method of opinion forming we fall into. There is, however, another side to this coin, another form of decision making. And we uses both in our day to day lives.
Scratching the Surface
SO, while you may note that you have found yourself falling into these traps, remember everyone does it, and it is vital that you notice yourself making decisions like this if you are ever to educate yourself more on what the truth of what the matter is.
And, if you are thinking to yourself, I don't do that. I make every one one of my decisions based on tangible evidence, you need to start asking, where does that evidence come from? And am I really taking in every single “fact-of-the-matter”.
Next week, in Part Two, I will look at Attribution. We'll see how our brains come to conclusions based on 'evidence', and how we have a tendency of molding that evidence to suit what we already believe, in ignorance of what it truly represents.
The basis for everything I say in the above article is from research in the field of Social Psychology, anyone unclear or in doubt of what I've said should pursue the topic in more depth, and of course, wait until next week's conclusion; Believe What You Want; Perceptions, Part Two.