Monday, March 17, 2008

We See What We Want to See

“It's like you weren’t even at the same meeting I was.”

Every so often during my years as a journalist I’d get phone calls from angry readers questioning what I’d written. Other readers of the same articles would congratulate me on having such accurate perceptions.

Before long I became convinced we all live in our separate and personal realities.

That’s why I’m looking forward to a new book by Farhad Manjoo called True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society, where he discusses how as humans we see what we want to see. His overall contention, apparently, is that things are getting even murkier in this digital age.

In his column today, Manjoo describes 9/11 film footage of Flight 175 as it approaches the World Trade Center. This very footage is vital evidence for a large group of conspiracy theorists who plainly see a missile being launched from the plane and striking the WTC tower shortly before the plane itself smashes into it. So far “official” investigators, however, have not seen the missile (nor does Manjoo, he admits) while viewing the same footage.

The same situation occurs after 45 years of analyzing the Zapruder footage of bullets blowing apart John F. Kennedy’s skull. Some people see proof of multiple assassins on the "grassy knoll" and others only see proof of Oswald as the lone killer.

This phenomenon is known as “selective perception” and was studied nearly 50 years ago by two social scientists, Albert Hastorf and Hadley Cantril. They showed footage of a Dartmouth football game against Princeton to groups of students from both colleges and told the students to document all infractions they saw. Each side perceived a completely different game – the Dartmouth students listed numerous infractions by Princeton players and few by their own team, while Princeton students did the opposite.

Hastorf and Cantril concluded that the key was the fact that the game – like many other things in our lives – was really just organized chaos. So much was happening at once that viewers were forced to construct reality by assembling pieces of the action into a coherent whole.

“Think about a schoolyard at recess, a baseball game, a political debate,” Majoo writes in his column. “Think about a confrontation at sea, a presidential assassination, a terrorist attack. Or just think about all that happened to you yesterday: Every ‘thing’ that occurs is really a million smaller things involving a million people. But which of the million things, and which of the million people, do we notice? And which do we overlook?”

I see what my brain wants to see, and you see what your brain wants to see.

Honestly, that’s one of the reasons I decided to leave journalism. I realized my best efforts at capturing objective truth were being sifted through my brain’s “reality” filter and that my irate critics and supporters alike were also just being true to their own perceived realities. There just wasn't enough perceptual middle ground for a firm footing.

(And it's not just the sense of sight. I recall years ago playing a Beatles album backwards on the turntable – the what?? – to hear the “Paul is dead” message heard by millions who became convinced we were one Beatle short of a full band. But all I heard was “rrrrraahhh-ehhhrraaahaaa” and was greatly relieved when John Lennon later confirmed that Paul was alive and there was no message embedded there at all. Whew.)


Christine LeFever said...

Yeah, and the weird thing is that John is dead!

Excellent post, Gregory.


COL said...

hi gregory. i just stumbled upon your blog and will definitely be checking out the book ... and coming back for more of your musings.

your sentiments here remind me of the Roger Evans quote i so love:

"There are three sides to every story: my side, your side and the truth. And no one is lying. Memories shared serve each one differently."