Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Perception vs. Reality, Part 3

Related to fearing the wrong things is the mistake of giving unwarranted influence to the wrong things. When Gerald Ford was president of the United States he went skiing a few times. Sometimes he fell while skiing. Reporters and comedians, many of whom probably couldn't ski a bunny slope, made a big deal about how his “lack of coordination” made him a poor president. One late night comedian got a lot of mileage out of a claim that Ford could not walk and chew gum at the same time.

Nobody mentioned exactly how President Ford's alleged coordination problems interfered with his ability to make good decisions as president. Would the ability to walk and chew gum at the same time have solved the country's economic problems? Reduced crime? If the ability to walk and chew gum at the same time was so important, how did a president who could not walk at all get us through most of World War II? (In fact, Ford was a former college football player and one of the more athletic presidents in U.S. history. His falls while skiing would not have been unusual for most skiers.)

Ford's alleged clumsiness had nothing to do with the characteristics needed in a good president. The people paying attention to that were allowing emphatic trifles to distract them from the real issues.

Physical appearance is another characteristic given too much influence in our society. Starting with the 1960 presidential elections, television has played a major role in United States politics, and with that came an emphasis on appearance. Kennedy was good looking and defeated Nixon. Then later Nixon, to win the presidency shaved twice a day since his heavy beard gave a bad appearance on TV. There is, as far as I know, no connection between good looks and good judgment. Yet the better-looking candidate has an advantage in our elections, at least if he is a man. People often think of a man's looks as reflective of his ability. The opposite may be true among female candidates since many people think of beautiful women as mindless. Both perceptions are wrong. We should try to judge politicians on their honesty and ability, not on their looks.

Finding reality in spite of our perception can be difficult. I have touched only on some of the more obvious problems. Other perceptual difficulties can be more subtle. We've all seen optical illusions such as the Mueller-Lyer figure which has two lines of identical length. The only difference is the figures on the ends of the lines. One line looks longer than the other. You can look it up if you're not familiar with this, sorry I can't get a good representation to appear in this blog.

We also have mental illusions that cause poor perception. These are just as prevalent as the optical illusions. For example, suppose you are tossing a coin. It is a fair coin and you are tossing it fairly. You know that the probability of heads on any given toss is 50%. It has just come up heads four times in a row. What is the probability that it will come up tails next toss? We have a natural inclination to expect a string of tails to balance out the number of times it has come up heads. That is wrong and is known as the “gambler's fallacy.” In fact the probability of heads is 50%, regardless of previous results. There is no cosmic law forcing it to come up heads and tails an equal number of times. It is a normal statistical fluctuation to occasionally get several heads in a row. In fact there is a 12.5% chance of getting the same result four times in a row with a fair coin toss! Put another way, if a large number of people each toss a fair coin four times, about 12.5% of them will get the same result all four times.

Cognitive scientists have been studying such mental illusions for several years now. What they have learned can be helpful as we try to overcome our perceptual problems. One book on the subject is Inevitable illusions by Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini.1

Impressions can be wrong. The wise person will make decisions based on reality, not perception and external appearance. We will serve ourselves well in all aspects of life if we just take a little time and ask ourselves, “Am I looking at what is important, or am I allowing spectacular trivialities to divert my attention from the less obvious but more important issues? Does my perception of this situation really reflect reality, or is there something important I’m missing?”

1Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, Inevitable Illusions, How Mistakes of Reason Rule our Minds, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. New York, 1994 Be aware that there are some mathematical errors in the book. I consider the chapter on Bayes law to be particularly bad.

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