In a single quick glance, most of us can confidently conclude that the tables above are of different shapes and sizes. Tilt your head from side to side, or if you must, incline it at an unnatural angle, and your conclusion will not be any different. The tables are as different as apples are from oranges. Yet, despite what you can see, if the illustrations were printed, cut and rotated, the two tables are actually identical. It’s an example of one of many famous optical illustrations. Here, our brain unconsciously converts the 2-D image into the 3-D image we typically ’see’ in our physical reality, and it wrongly calculates the depth of perception.
What’s especially fascinating about the optical illusion is not just the erroneous certainty we arrive at our answers, nor is it the tacit implication that our eyes (and perhaps our minds) can make mistakes in visual interpretation. Rather, and quite disturbingly, even when we have received the knowledge to understand the optical illusion, our brain still remains unable to see past the illusion. And this, despite what many will claim about being in control of themselves, showcases a signature property of our mind: a great deal of its processes are unconscious, involuntary, hidden and automatic. We are in many ways not just blind, but as Daniel Kahneman puts so wonderfully, we are also blind to our own blindness.
Our nose for example obscures our optical vision and yet when we look upon objects in the distance or frown upon our worst critics, we never perceive our nose as an obstruction. Where there should be a nose, our mind has filled that blockade with an imaginary (but extremely effective) and seamless vision that blends in with what we can see. On the surface, these blind spots may seem harmless, possibly even superficial, but as many experiments have proven otherwise, they actually string together a coherent and continuous combination of hidden biases that operate without any input from us.
In a famous study, after watching an automobile accident involving the collision of two cars, half the participants were asked the following question:
“How fast was the car going when it hit the other car?”
The second half received a slightly different question:
“How fast was the car going when it smashed the other car?”
Those who answered the ‘smashed’ question not only gave higher estimates of the vehicles’ speed, they were likely to claim that there were broken pieces of glass at the accident even though none was shown. Aside from the dire implications for eyewitness testimony (and a good reason to be dubious of anyone who claims to have seen or heard a ghost, God or the Devil), it also shows how our mind does not act in isolation. How a question is phrased, how we think about the world, or how we react to the emotional triggers in us, can lead us to unconsciously construct falsified realities, hold prejudices and indirectly influence who we choose to love and hate.
The ramifications are quite far reaching: we automatically feel a greater sense of trust for people who share similar facial features to us, those who have the same skin colour, or someone with a ‘baby’ face. And our brain makes its mind up and delivers its judgement in exactly the same time it took to confidently assert the image above was different: almost immediately. Left unmanaged, our brain can indeed subtly (and successfully) influence many of our decisions for which we will afterwards struggle to find rational reasons for. Time and time again, we know with certainty that human rationality is extremely limited.
These biases we levy on others, and which are similarly brought to bear on us, continue to have consequences in the judicial, ethical and religious world. And the funny thing about blind spots is that at a point when we most need to be rational, we often make slip-ups, and even the most educated and intelligent being, for all his awareness and knowledge, is likely no less vulnerable to his blind spots. Still, we can indeed correct and prevent these biases if we try very hard to avoid letting our brain coast effortlessly. But thinking in this way – logical, critical and reflective – is difficult in most situations and sometimes impossible in the most urgent of moments.
Yet, we should strive to think well and acknowledge our blind spots because many of our critical decisions – who we love, who we work for and who we look up to – if made on a whim, are often carelessly instinctive. While there’s plenty to be said about following your guts and instincts (often from an inspirational quote or two), we now know more about where and when our senses can predictably fail us. We are after all, only animals.
So have you thought about (HYTA) what your blind spots are?