(image via Youtube/PBS)
Is reality, as we see it, anywhere near the mark?
Have a look around you, listen (and feel free to use your other senses too). That should give you a good sense of the reality of your current environment, shouldn’t it? Yet the picture we get of that reality is inevitably limited by what our senses can detect. Our eyes can only ‘see’ light with wavelengths between infrared and ultraviolet, and our ears can only ‘hear’ sounds with a frequency between roughly 30 Hz and 19,000 Hz (this range reduces dramatically as we get older).
These limits are peculiar to us: bees have no receptors for the colour red, but they have one for ultraviolet (as shown in the banner picture); dogs can detect sounds with a frequency more than an octave higher than the highest-pitched sounds we can hear. But they too have limits to their perception. Whatever reality anyone observes, it’s only a fraction of what is really out there.
Our senses are not the only limit on how we construct reality. We do the same at a higher, cognitive level, combining existing beliefs with our perception. The polling organization Ipsos conducts an annual survey in dozens of countries, gauging people’s perception of a range of societal matters, and compare it with the actual facts. I mentioned this project in an earlier essay, but since then Bobby Duffy (until September 2018 the Global Director of the Ipsos Social Research Institute) has bundled several years of insights in a new book, The Perils of Perception.
In most cases when we get things wrong, like the percentage of teenage girls that become pregnant, or the proportion of Muslims in the population, we overestimate reality rather than underestimate it. One of the main reasons, Duffy says, is that we have an in-built bias for negative information. And of course, the media feed us plenty of that – a case of selection bias on their part (they report mostly bad news), and of the saliency effect on ours (we see this bad news as representative).
We see bad stuff more easily, and we remember it better. This is not so extraordinary from an evolutionary perspective – in face of limited data, we are more likely to survive if we are pessimistic and cautious than if we dismiss what worries us. Bobby Duffy calls this emotional innumeracy: we may try to be accurate in our estimates, but if we are concerned about something, we will project this and inflate the corresponding number. This is not a one-way process: our overestimate can feed our worry, just as much as our worry can cause us to overestimate the numbers. For this reason, overestimations are a good indicator of what worries a population. Add other cognitive tendencies like confirmation bias (we have more eye for that which supports what we already believe) and motivated reasoning (we seek to explain things based on what we believe), and you’d almost be surprised we can function at all with such a distorted world view.
Yet it is not just in our opinions and beliefs about our wider society that we get things badly wrong. Sometimes it can affect us directly, for example when we disagree with a certain behavioural norm, and mistakenly assume it is common among our peers. This phenomenon, known as pluralistic ignorance, captures how we adjust our behaviour in accordance with that misperceived reality. In a 1993 paper, Deborah Prentice and Dale Miller, two psychologists at Princeton University, described how students believe their peers drink more alcohol than they themselves do (and than they consider healthy). They found that male students then tended to not only adjust their attitude towards this perceived norm and become more tolerant, but also adjust their behaviour and drink more and more as the year progresses.
The behaviour can be detrimental in the other direction, too. A recent paper by Steven Buzinski (a psychologist at the university of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) and colleagues explores perception of the amount of time spent studying. Students were, on average, found to underestimate how much their peers studied for an upcoming exam. Interestingly, it was the students who overestimated the effort of their colleagues who went on to underperform on the exam. The authors speculate this is because, instead of being encouraged to study more, they suffered from anxiety and self-doubt as they felt deeply unprepared.
And even when we hypothesize about alternative realities, we seem to be subject to biases.
We often imagine counterfactuals to compare our current situation, past actions or future possibilities with alternatives. A quick search across my earlier posts suggest I have invited readers to “imagine” something more than 80 (!) times. But do we treat these imagined realities the same as the actual reality? Jens Andreas Terum, a psychologist at the Arctic University of Norway (the name alone makes me want to go there) investigated this question as part of his PhD Thesis.
Terum found the subjects in his studies treated counterfactuals with considerable bias in comparison with how they handled actual facts. Alternative realities were almost always imagined as opposite to actual realities, and extremely so (i.e. if in a scenario, things went well in reality, the imagined counterfactual was not a bit better or a bit worse, but very badly indeed). They also evaluated the consequences of a negative event (e.g. arriving late at a job interview) as worse when it was presented as a counterfactual, than as an actual event.
You might imagine (!) that this tendency helps us by bringing to the fore the dire consequences of ill-considered future actions. But this was not the case: the emotional intensity felt with counterfactuals was lower than with actual events. We see the outcome as worse, but we care less about it. This aligns with what he found in another study: near-accidents (where the counterfactual is of course a bad accident) were far less likely to inspire more caution in future than actual accidents. All this seems to fit with the idea that, even in imagined realities, we tend to be self-serving, first and foremost seeking to justify or absolve our actual behaviour.
Larger than you think
Perhaps the most graphic illustration of how distorted our reality is, is the way we map the world. Looking at the familiar picture below, would you say Europe is larger or smaller than Africa?
The area of Africa is just over 30 million km2, that of Europe 10 million km2 – not quite what the map suggests: so Europe fits three times into Africa. The Gall-Peters projection does a much better job of showing relative sizes, but we hang on to the inaccurate, heavily distorted Mercator projection. Perhaps the reason is that it exaggerates the importance of Europe and North-America? You might very well think that, but of course I could not possibly comment…
We may not be able to swap the ubiquitous distorted world maps, but can we do something about our own misperceptions? Easier said than done, but we could try, for example, in our personal sphere, not to make too many untested assumptions about the norms others hold and apply. We could also bear in mind that imagined realities are, if anything, even more biased than our perception of the actual reality. With respect to our perception of the world at large, Bobby Duffy’s advice is to actively unfilter our world, to be critical and check facts – especially facts that chime with our values and those presented by members of our ingroup. We can counterbalance our natural pessimism by cultivating a basic assumption that things are not getting worse, but getting better (Max Roser’s work, and that of the late, great Hans Rosling – continued by his son Ola and daughter-in-law Anna – are an excellent antidote for excessive negativism).
That will leave us more than enough pessimism to help us survive… if all goes well of course.