It's December, and I'm visiting family for our seasonal reunion, staying at my mother's home. As every year, we'll be celebrating the holidays and my niece's birthday. This visit has some interesting family dynamics, like all such visits, but that's another story. The lesson for me this year is about perceptions.
It's a cold winter day, and I decide to buy a birthday gift for my niece. My mother lives near three shopping malls, and my destination is the mall furthest away. You can't quite see it from the front window, but it isn't very far, so I decide to walk.
This choice astounds my mother, who insists that I drive. I don't know how long the walk will be, but I'm guessing maybe a little more than an hour. With assurances to my mother about my physical abilities, I bundle up and set off.
Cutting across parking lots and shopping mall landscaping, I arrive at the store, make my purchase, and return in just under 30 minutes. My mother is surprised, but even I am shocked. How could my time estimate have been so far off?
I suddenly realize that I haven't walked much around here — it's an automobile world, with highways, red lights, and heavy traffic. My perceptions of distances are really perceptions of the time it takes to drive. I had been using a driving filter to project a walking experience.
It's a common mistake. We think we're making valid extrapolations when we aren't. Here are some of the filters that distort our perceptions.
- This is just like that
- Sometimes we believe that the situation we face is familiar when it actually isn't. This is the mistake I made.
- How We often think
that we're seeing
things as they are
when we aren'tdoes this situation differ from the situations you know? How is it similar? Are the differences and similarities important?
- Bias and preference
- Especially if they're very strong, our biases and preferences affect our judgment.
- Our biases sometimes arise from our investments. What's at stake? Is there much to gain or lose?
- Illusions of independence
- If someone who commands us with authority requires a certain course of action, then our judgment about its feasibility is possibly suspect. And the same is true if the contemplated action is fashionable.
- To accept that authority or fashion influences our perceptions is to accept our limitations — a difficult thing to do.
- I'm late, I'm late, for a very important date
- If urgent action is required, we sometimes decide that we have no more time to think; no more time for caution.
- Usually the opposite is true: with urgency comes enhanced need for thought and caution.
One common filter many of us share is a belief that we, personally, always see things as they are — unclouded by bias, authority, habit, urgency, or fashion. This "no-filter" filter is perhaps the most dangerous filter of all.
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