Seeing is believing | Sunday Observer

Seeing is believing

Motivation: The key to achieving goals
Motivation: The key to achieving goals

Psychologists view perception, or seeing, as a process of building the things we perceive as reality out of fragments of information. We are born with some of the rules for organizing information, but a few other factors can influence the way we perceive things.

Our experiences have a powerful impact on how we perceive things. The concept of ‘perpetual set’ tries to capture this idea, an expectation of what you will perceive. We use cues from context and experience to help us understand what we are seeing. For instance, if I am driving down a road and see someone in a police uniform standing next to someone’s car window, I assume that he is making a traffic stop. I could actually be seeing a person in a police uniform asking for directions, but my experience tells me otherwise.

Another powerful influence on how we perceive things is the culture that we live in. For example, I am looking at a series of pictures that show a woman carrying a bag, a picture of her crying, a man approaching her, and a picture with her bag missing. Here I might see a woman who is upset because she dropped her bag and a man is coming to help her. Or, I might see a woman crying out of fear because a man is coming to steal her bag. Depending on my culture or subculture, not to mention my experience, I could visualize two very different stories.

Deep sleep

Sometimes, you get out of a deep sleep and head for the bathroom. However, you are not sure why you are there. You see familiar objects in the bathroom such as the shower, a tube of toothpaste, a brush, a razor and of course the commode. You look at something on the wall. A familiar figure stares at you, but you are confused, disoriented and basically lost. At these times, your mind goes completely blank. In such a situation, what are you going to do? You find that you cannot get out of the bathroom and you blame yourself for oversleeping.

We take thinking for granted, because it is quite automatic and effortless. You are free to think of anything or anybody. Nobody will know what you are thinking about. Although most of us are not psychologists or philosophers, we assume that we have a mind and we know that we can think. In psychology, thought or thought processes are called ‘cognition’ or ‘cognitive processes.’ We find it difficult to ‘see’ how we think. Even if a surgeon opens up your skull and looks at your brain, he will not see anything called ‘thoughts’ but a complex network of neurons. But, we know that we can think and solve problems. You can add, subtract, multiply and divide. Sometimes, you get the wrong answer. If you happen to be answering a mathematics paper, you will fail the examination.

People say, ‘Seeing is believing’. What they mean is that you can believe what you see for yourself. This is true because you cannot always believe what others tell you. Sometimes, it so happens that we cannot trust our own eyes. It is an accepted fact that our eyes can deceive us from time to time. There is an old story about a man who returned home after a long period. Before entering the house through the main door, he peeped through the window to see who lived there. To his surprise he saw his wife sleeping with another man. He lost his temper and barged into the bedroom to kill him. However, what he saw baffled him. His wife was sleeping next to her son. Then he realized that his eyes had deceived him.


Most of us are fooled into seeing one thing, when in reality it is something else. How we see that ‘something else’ is a mystery. However, psychologists have shown that the human factor plays a major role in such matters. Even without our knowledge, motivation affects our vision. For instance, hunger and thirst affect perception. When you travel in a desert, you see water in the distance. But there is no water anywhere. It is only a mirage. If you show a cardboard box to a hungry man, he would think there is food in it. Similarly, you might panic on seeing a piece of wire thinking it is a snake.

On the other hand, another kind of hunger makes us see what is not there. The well-known psychologist William James said, “Twenty times a day, the lover perambulating the streets with his preoccupied fancy, will think he perceives his idol’s bonnet before him.” The fact that lovers see the world differently is confirmed by the popular saying, “Love is blind.” No ophthalmologist or optician will be able to correct such a malady with surgery, medicine or spectacles.

Poverty is another powerful motivational factor affecting your perception. In a classic experiment, Jerome Bruner and Cecile Goodman showed a group of children circles of various sizes and asked them to pick those that were the same size as certain coins. The children consistently overestimated the sizes of the coins, poor children chose circles that were too large. A one pence coin would look bigger to a poor child than it does to a rich boy or girl. You might wonder whether rich children would show the same bias towards a one pound coin.


Past learning and experience also affect your perception. If you have worked as a proofreader, you will at once detect a word wrongly spelled. If you are a competent journalist or editor, you will note wrong idiomatic expressions and typographical errors in newspapers and books. Once I read a short news item with a headline, “Man eating croc killed.” The reader might wonder who was killed. Was it the man or the croc? School textbooks and some newspapers are full of typographical errors, but most readers do not spot them. Only a trained proofreader or an editor would detect them.

It is surprising how much influence our age-old beliefs have on what we perceive. If you have faith in Black Magic, you will see ‘Hanuman’ or Anjanam Devi’ in a black patch on a saucer. If you are a Rationalist, you will not see any of them. In a famous experiment, Bruner and Leo Postman flashed pictures of playing cards on a screen for brief periods. Some of the cards were ordinary, but some had colours opposite to their suit, such as a black six of hearts or a red two of spades. Oddly enough, the bizarre cards did not trouble the students. To them, the black six of hearts was either a perfectly ordinary black six of spades or an equally ordinary red six of hearts. When the students got to see the cards a bit longer, they saw a kind of compromise: a red three of spades became purple.

If you happen to move around in the country, you will see different faces with diverse emotions. Some people have pleading faces. They are in need of food, clothing or money. Others have domineering faces who want to conquer others and rule them. We come to such conclusions depending on our knowledge of people and our own experience. An innocent child will think that all the people he meets are sympathetic, loving and benevolent. He will not know there are child abusers and rapists among them.

Experiments are still going on about perception but psychological factors are better seen outside the laboratory. For instance, on July 3, 1988, a group of United States sailors shot down a civilian aircraft, killing 290 people. There was apparently no failure in radar equipment. How, then, could sailors have watched a radar screen and seen a plane descending, as if for attack, when in fact the radar showed the plane was climbing? So, you might agree with the statement ‘Seeing is believing’.

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