The atmosphere was souring by the minute. One woman’s perception was that the school was doing its best, that there were far worse situations in other schools, in other areas of the country, and that more discipline would lead to abuse. The other woman snorted with disdain at the degree of ignorance in this perception. Letting children run wild in a school was the reason why society was going to the dogs. The implication in the argument was that one knew better how to raise children than the other. The atmosphere remained strained for the rest of the day.
What happens when we hear or see something unfamiliar? First we seek all the information we can detect, and want to learn more. Second we compare what we see with what we have seen and known in the past. Third we seek to categorise, accepting and rejecting different pieces of information through a process of increasingly intense selective filtering, until we hit upon a conclusion. Thus we categorise and interpret sensory information in a way that favours one interpretation over another. In this image of a vase, young children see dolphins.
Individuals reach different conclusions about media events according to their preconceived ideas. In this way an identical event may lead different political parties to adopt diametrically opposing views on action. In one experiment, students told they were consuming alcohol became gradually more drunk in their behaviour, even though no alcohol was present. In another, subjects were given an article to read about flu and then shown pictures of people. They then identified possible carriers of the virus – who turned out to be obese people, foreigners and the elderly. Thus this image of a horse, is not a horse at all when viewed sideways.
The process of selective perception may also vary in the individual according to his or her prior emotional state. In related research, participants who had agreed to walk on their campus carrying a large, embarrassing sign underestimated the distance to be crossed. This was a result of trying to cope with the contradiction of doing something unpleasant of their own free will. In fact the way the brain interprets stimuli cannot be trusted. If we plunge a cold hand into a bowl of lukewarm water it will feel warmer than if our hands were at room temperature. Another example of how perceptions can vary can be found in language. We may listen to a foreign language and hear only the music and the sounds as a long, uninterrupted melody, but when we learn the language there is an Aha! moment as the sounds separate first into words and then into meaning. In the header image above, among the old women is a girl no more than twenty. When you spot her you will think again about helping her up the steps.
Each of us tends to believe our view of the world is the correct one, but this is not the case. We see the world through a filter of our own thoughts, experiences and beliefs. When we express an opinion, we are describing our own selves, and if anyone disagrees with our perception we feel an affront and immediately assume they are deluded. This applies to our own view of ageing too. The problem is our view of ageing describes how we see ourselves as older people, and this is likely to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, for anything else would mean accepting the humiliating idea that our perception was wrong.
Selective perception has major implications for our health. Our perceptions of how long we have to live directly affect our physiology. Let us favour the Aha! moment more often. Opening our minds to other possibilities will enrich life; believing we will live long after the age of eighty in a state of mental and physical fitness will increase the probability this perception will come true.
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