There is a photographic technique known as “forced perspective,” which manipulates depths and angles to create unique or amusing optical illusions.
I am sure you have seen examples of such images: a tourist posing to appear as though he is holding up the leaning tower of Pisa, or puffing out a cloud, or dipping the moon into a coffee cup.
But isolated perspectives can be deceptive in real life as well.
Not too long ago, an intriguing commercial filmed in London demonstrated this fact. Listen to how John Steel describes it in his book, Truth, Lies and Advertising. I quote:
". . . this commercial was shot in grainy black and white, more like a documentary than a commercial.[i]
"It opens on a slow-motion scene of a rough-looking skinhead sprinting down the sidewalk of a dull terrace in an old industrial town. A car slows menacingly at the end of the street, perhaps in pursuit. A woman, standing on her doorstep, flinches as the skinhead runs past her…”[ii]
"We now see the same scene from a different angle. The skinhead darts past the woman, and this time we see that he's headed toward an old man, who is wearing a long overcoat and hat and carrying a briefcase. The old man raises his briefcase to defend himself as the thug makes a grab for him.”[iii]
"The commercial fades to a third replay of the same action…this time shot from high up on a building across the street. We see (now) that right above the old man, who is completely oblivious to the fact, a large tray of bricks is being hoisted up the side of a building. It is swaying dangerously, and the skinhead has spotted it…races down the street…grabs the old man and pushes him back against the wall to protect him as the bricks crash to the sidewalk."[iv]
The commercial, of course, wasn’t selling a product but rather the idea that we can only arrive at the truth when we consider multiple perspectives, and that takes a practiced, conscious effort to consider multiple viewpoints.
Our personal perspectives, it seems, are sometimes like blinders: They restrict our field of vision, allowing us to see only selected aspects of our environment and, simultaneously, keeping us from seeing other things that may be even more important.
More recently, with the growth of the Internet and social media algorithms, a new set of “blinders” has emerged.
Eli Pariser is a liberal activist who one day noticed something odd about his Facebook account. He seemed to no longer receive updates from his conservative friends. He contacted these individuals to see if they had unfriended him, and was assured they hadn’t.[v]
What had happened, you see, is that in an attempt to manage the enormous stream of updates that are available on Facebook everyday, the social network had created what they thought was a helpful default, thereby filtering the updates to show only those from people with whom Pariser had recently interacted.[vi]
Since he communicated with his conservative friends less often than with the liberal ones, the conservative friends were filtered out. Without his knowledge or approval, his intellectual sparring partners had been removed from the ring.
Pariser was appalled, researched the topic, and published a book titled “The Filter Bubble.”[vii]
Pariser argues that the personalization of information throughout the web – those helpful messages you see on your screen proclaiming, “People who bought this item also liked…,” or “You may enjoy these titles, too” – as much as they sometimes help, may not expand our view of the world – but actually narrow it!
While that may be a benefit in online shopping, it is most certainly a negative where ideas are concerned. Confirmation bias – a tendency to select only that information which supports your belief in something – is poisonous to the truth, whether it be political, economical, philosophical, or whatever. And yet that bias is reinforced by news feeds that send only the type of news they think we want to see.
You are now bona fide critical thinkers, so the next time your computer offers to help shape your view of the world, think twice before necessarily following its lead.
There is one last set of blinders that afflict all of us, and I’m afraid unlike the filters we can switch on or off on our computers, these are hardwired into us.
We all suffer from Inattentional Blindness, or the “strangeness of the familiar,” which is the tendency to overlook things that are often in plain sight.
Dr. Susan Weinschenk, who has spent 30 years applying psychology to the workplace, now maintains a most interesting blog, and one of her most famous posts is on the “47 Mind-Blowing Psychology-Proven Facts You Should Know about Yourself.” [viii]
These include such gems as, “You make most of your decisions unconsciously,” or “You are most susceptible to advertising when you are sad or frightened.” But number one on that list is Inattentional Blindness.[ix]
This phenomenon of inattentional blindness was played out in a landmark psychology experiment at Harvard University.
Researchers there created a video titled “Gorillas in Our Midst,” which has become a global sensation on YouTube, with more than 9.6 million views.[x]
Filmed in 1999, this short video uses six students passing a basketball – three are wearing white; three are wearing black. Test subjects (viewers) were asked to watch the video and count how many times the white shirts pass the ball.
In the middle of the video, a woman in a gorilla suit strolls into the action, faces the camera and thumps her chest before leaving. She is on the screen for a full nine seconds.
Yet, while most test subjects accurately counted the number of passes, at least half of them failed to see the gorilla. It was, as the researchers explained, as though the gorilla was invisible. (If you have not seen the video, simply go to YouTube and search for “gorillas in our midst.”)
The experiment became the genesis for the best-selling book, The Invisible Gorilla: and Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us. In it, the Harvard researchers maintain that people do, in fact, miss much of what they could see, while at the same time overestimating their mental abilities and capacities. They write that “it is a kind of a self-delusion,” which can have serious consequences when it leads to “a false sense of security, such as talking or texting on a cell phone while driving.”[xi]
The authors point out that although humans have the motor skills necessary to drive with one hand and to hold a cell phone with the other, the problem lies with our attentional resources. In other words, with the fact that we could be looking directly at something and not see it.
Of course, the problem is not limited to cell phones on the highway. Inattentional blindness can result from being lost in thought: thinking about unfinished projects at work or at school, or what you’ll do when you get home.
In fact, I believe that it may be happening to many of you right now…which means it is time for me to close.
It also means that although we pride ourselves in being able to multi task, we really can only truly focus on one thing at a time. So if you take nothing else from this lesson other than “texting while driving is a bad thing,” it has been a profitable lesson. But since you are now University of Akron graduates, I am confident you understand the deeper meaning of this talk and always seek additional perspectives.
On behalf of the Trustees, the faculty, the staff and administration, your fellow students, and The University of Akron family everywhere - I salute you, the Fall 2013 graduates, together with your family and friends who have helped make your success possible.
[i] Steel, John, Truth, Likes and Advertising: The Art of Account Planning, John Wiley & Sons, February 1998
[v] Pariser, Eli. “The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From You.” 2011. Penguin Press.
[xi] Chabris, Christopher and Daniel Simons, The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us, Crown, New York, 2010, p. ix & x)