How Do We Know?

“The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.” 
Henri-Louis Bergson, French philosopher

In many respects, the characters in Death in Panama are no different from the rest of us.  Sometimes, they sincerely believe something is true, when in fact it is not.  Their error is not borne of malice; rather, it’s the result of misperception.

We can be fooled by the physical world.  For example, we think that our eyes see color.  In fact, what we perceive as color is actually the product of the surface properties of the object and how it reflects certain wavelengths of light.  If the reflection of the light changes for some reason, such as different lighting conditions or haziness in the atmosphere, then the color of the object will change.

We can also be fooled because the perception of our senses can be distorted by our minds. 

Let’s consider a few ways that can happen.

First, when we believe that something is true we tend to look for evidence that supports that belief and fail to notice evidence that tends to undermine it.  Psychologists call this tendency the “confirmation bias” and have found that it is more pronounced in emotionally charged situations. 

British psychologist Peter Wason conducted a series of experiments in the 1960s in which he asked participants to identify a rule that applies to a series of three numbers, such as 2-4-8.  Participants were asked to construct other sets of three numbers to test their assumptions.  Invariably, they tried sequences such as 16-32-64 or 3-6-12, all of which were correct.  After a few tries, the subjects would stop, thinking they had discovered the rule.  In fact, they had not.  The rule was simply an increasing sequence of numbers.  Almost all of the participants failed to discover the real rule, because they only tried numbers that confirmed their hypotheses.  Very few tried to disprove their hypotheses.

Here's a quick video of the experiment: 

To avoid the confirmation bias, we should check the evidence carefully before drawing a conclusion.  We should be conscious of the tendency to see only evidence that supports a conclusion we’ve already drawn, and we should test our hypotheses by trying to disprove them.  In short, each of us should keep an open mind.

Another distortion, related to the confirmation bias, is called the “anchoring effect.”  The anchoring effect is the label psychologists give to a common human tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information that is offered; that is, the “anchor.”  After the anchor is set, subsequent judgments are, to an extent, based on that first piece of information.  That’s why car salesman like to set an initial price (the anchor), which then sets the standard for the remainder of the negotiations.  After that, any price below the anchor seems more reasonable, even if it is still higher than what the car is really worth!

We should guard against the distortion caused by the anchoring effect by being cognizant of it.  For example, if our first experience with someone is negative, we should not allow that experience to distort later interactions.  They should be judged individually, as objectively as possible.  If a salesman attempts to set a price—and make it an anchor—then we should get some comparisons.  In fact, that is exactly what we’re doing when we comparison shop:  we’re getting new price anchors.

Listen carefully to the instructions at the beginning of the video take the test:  

After you take the test, scroll down to continue reading.

This experiment illustrates another distortion of perception, which occurs when we are focused intently on a certain thing.  We can actually fail to see something that is right before our eyes.  The failure to see is not based on the limits of our eyes, but on the limits of our minds.   When our attention is focused intently on one thing, we fail to notice other, unexpected things. 

As you can see from the test, we can miss important information that is right before us, if we are focused on something else.  This distortion might cause us to miss information that would have led us to a different conclusion about a person or a situation. 

Finally, our perception can be distorted because we simply don’t have all the facts.  The person who cuts us off in traffic might be taking someone to the hospital.  Or, he might be a jerk.  Normally, we simply don’t have the whole story—the whole truth.  Sometimes, we’re upset because we interpret situations or events—or give them assumed meanings—instead of focusing on what we can actually observe and confirm to be true.  Sometimes our perceptions, and thus our reactions, are based on erroneous assumptions that would be different if we had more information. 

Whether one is an investigator, like Jaime Hernandez, or a lawyer, like Robert E. Clark, or simply a human being trying to make his or her way in the world, it is extremely important to draw conclusions based on solid, objective evidence, not perceptions that can be distorted in ways we can’t even imagine.