Reasons why we see
only what we expect to see.
People tend to think of perception as a passive process. We see, hear, smell, taste or
feel stimuli that impinge upon our senses. We think that if we are at all
objective, we record what is actually there. Yet perception is demonstrably an
active rather than a passive process; it constructs rather than records
“reality.” Perception implies understanding as well as awareness. It
is a process of inference in which people construct their own version of
reality on the basis of information provided through the five senses.
In the illustration a grid appears normal in
the center, yet the left and right areas are irregular and incoherent. If you stare at the center
of the grid for a few minutes, the grid will miraculously heal itself and you
will perceive a perfect grid. In reality, the grid is still incoherent but your
mind will perceive it as a perfect grid. This is because your mind is strongly
influenced by your past experiences, education, cultural values and role requirements as
well as by the stimuli recorded by their receptor organs. Your mind expects the
grid to be a perfect grid and makes it so.
Perception is also skewed by the observer’s own expectations, assumptions and
preconceptions. One classic experiment to demonstrate the influence of
expectations on perception used playing cards, some of which were gimmicked so
the spades were red and the hearts black. Pictures of the cards were flashed
briefly on a screen and, needless to say, the test subjects identified the
normal cards more quickly and accurately than the anomalous ones. After test
subjects became aware of the existence of red spades and black hearts, their
performance with the gimmicked cards improved but still did not approach the
speed or accuracy with which normal cards could be identified.
This experiment shows that patterns of expectation become so deeply embedded that
they continue to influence perceptions even when people are alerted to and try
to take account of the existence of data that do not fit their preconceptions.
Trying to be objective does not ensure accurate perception. In the
illustration, read the colors of the words aloud. The colors not the words.
This task is difficult, as I’m sure you’ve discovered. Not only is it difficult but
it is resistant to practice. The difficulty of removing the interference effect
of the words when trying to state the colors is because our brains are
conditioned to recognize words without effort. In other words, people see the
meaning or words without much effort or consciousness. On the other hand,
naming colors is not automatic. It requires more effort than reading, thus
creating interference in this simple task. Our pattern of the expectation of
reading words is so deeply embedded it cannot be turned off and creates the
interference with the task of naming colors.
THE IMPLICATIONS FOR INTELLIGENCE AND GOVERNMENTS. The position of the test subject identifying
playing cards is analogous to that of the intelligence analyst or government leader trying to make sense of the paper flow
that crosses his or her desk. What is actually perceived in that paper flow, as
well as how it is interpreted depends in part, at least, on the analyst’s
patterns of expectation. Intelligence analysts do not just have expectations
about the color of hearts and spades. They have a set of assumptions and
expectations about the motivations of people and the processes of government in
foreign countries. Events consistent with these expectations are perceived and
processed easily, while events that contradict prevailing expectations tend to
be ignored or distorted in perception. Of course, this distortion is a subconscious or pre‑conscious process.
This tendency of people to perceive what they expect to perceive is more important
than any tendency to perceive what they want to perceive. In fact, there is no
real tendency toward wishful thinking. The commonly cited evidence supporting
the claim that people tend to perceive what they want to perceive can generally
be explained equally well by people who see what they expect to see.
THOUGHT EXPERIMENT. Look at the illustration. Do not read further
content until you guess as to what the illustration might represent.
Expectations have many diverse sources, including past experience, professional training,
and cultural and organizational norms. All these influences predispose us to
pay particular attention to certain kinds of information and to organize and
interpret this information in certain ways. Perception is also influenced by
the context in which it occurs. Now, suppose I tell you the illustration
contains the face of a cow. Can you find it? You will find it if you expect to
Patterns of expectations tell us, subconsciously, what to look for, what is important,
and how to interpret what is seen. These patterns form a mind‑set that
predisposes the black and white spaces to organize themselves in such a way
that you can perceive the face of a cow. This perception is formed on the basis
of very little information (i.e., you were told the illustration contained the
picture of a cow.).
Once people from impressions on the basis of very little information, they do not
reject or change them unless they obtain rather solid evidence. The early but
incorrect impression tends to persist because the amount of information necessary
to invalidate a hypothesis is considerably greater than the amount of
information required to make an initial interpretation. The problem is not that
there is any inherent difficulty in grasping new perceptions or new ideas, but
that established perceptions are extremely difficult to change.
I promise you that every time you see this illustration from now on, you will immediately see the face
of the cow.