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Different Minds Have Different Eyes

A look at differences in perception between people.

Young children are unable to determine that an equivalent volume of liquid is equivalent, even when they see it poured directly from one vessel to another.

They also cannot understand that an object concealed by the box must be behind (or under) the box.

There are other cases. Skinner tried to ascribe certain pigeon behaviors associated with random reinforcement to superstition, though others disagree about whether that fits the bill.

Tell a man he’s a guard, or a prisoner, and he will see the experimental world quite differently.

Tell a man he’s got to continue with electric shocks, he sees the world quite differently.

Bill Hicks did a bit in the wake of the trial of the LAPD police officers who were filmed hitting Rodney King Jr. He said something like:

[The officer] looks in the camera and actually says, “Oh, that Rodney King beating tape, it’s all in how you look at it.”


“All in how you look at it, officer […]?”

“That’s right, it’s how you look at the tape.”
“Well, would you care to tell the court how you’re looking at that?”

“Yeah, okay, sure. It’s how you look at it. The tape. For instance, well, if you play it backwards, you see us help King up and send him on his way.”

While Hicks was just making fun of what he saw as a completely ridiculous verdict and trial, the reality of different people looking at the same thing is often nearly this stark.

Eyewitness testimony is far less reliable than you might think.

There was a case study done in 1954, They Saw a Game, by Hasdorf and Cantril. They showed footage of a rough 1951 collegiate American football game between the Dartmouth Indians and the Princeton Tigers to psychology students of the two schools. A week later, the students filled out questionnaires about the game.

There were major discrepancies between the perceptions of the game by students of one school and the other. Effectively, they watched a different game, owing the difference entirely to their perception of the action.

The difference of perception between minds is extraordinary. It is especially relevant these days, between the ongoing anger over perceived grievances against the West, the ongoing anger over disagreements in politics, the ongoing anger over the ongoing financial crises.

You have antagonists that see opportunities in conflict. This includes religious groups that raise funds based on the urgency of religious turmoil. It includes news organizations that make a living off of feeding perception differences. It includes political organizations that feed off the fear of the different perceivers gaining power. It is important to note that they aren’t necessarily aware of their exploitation of the conflict; many honestly believe in the urgency of their cause.

You have people trying to honestly highlight the underlying causes and realities of the conflicts. These are attacked for their trouble, by the partisans who believe they are trying to undermine the cause.

And you have the majority, who are too busy with other things. They perceive conflicts as intractable, beyond understanding.

Identity and Group Conflict

An attempt to look at identity and group behaviors.

First a note on the progress of my browser problems. The first problem was solved by a sweep through my profile directory, cleaning out the cruft that had accumulated over the years. The second problem, of Firebug not working, turned out to be due to a problem with the way the package was being built (an untracked upstream build change that needed to be accounted for in the package). The maintainer is aware of that now, so it should be fixed in future builds.

Today’s post is about what I consider a major problem for mankind. Who are you? Occasionally a stranger will ask you that, and it’s not like there’s a good answer. You can give your name, but that hardly gets to the heart of the matter.

Humans have a tendency to want to know who they are, mainly because it makes the whole thought process easier. In some things it is essential: it is not recommended to try to play chess if you do not know which side you are playing. Your opponent may get angry if you move her pieces.

People like having identities. They adopt a role. If you are the bully, you know how to behave. You know how people will react. You remove uncertainty.

There are group identities, which are common. People see themselves as soldiers in the fight for their group. People can do all sorts of bad and good things just because they see themselves as aiding their team.

People can commit bank fraud, taking a false loan, because they see themselves as saving their company that’s underwater. They don’t see it as fraud, because that’s not the identity they hold.

Group identities are especially problematic. In interactions with other groups result in anxiety, and adopting a harmful situational role is possible:

In the case of stereotype threat, the individual may adopt a very restricted behavior, trying to avoid confirming group stereotypes. Or they may, in the face of such stress, adopt a facade of apparent strength (eg, bullying) in order to protect their true identity. In the latter case, they need not worry about reputation or identity damage, because they can write off any bad reactions to the fact they were adopting a role, playing a part.

Stereotype threat is a factor of intergroup anxiety. One can see some of the difficulties in group interactions in situations where a lone member of one group interacts with a second, only later to be joined by more members of their group of origin. Their demeanor changes when comrades arrive. If conflict had already been suggested, it may be escalated.

One large problem, setting aside the direct conflicts and harms caused by the adopted identities, is that the adoption becomes ingrained by conflict. It’s the age-old investment trap. If you’ve taken blows for being of some identity, you have all the more reason to hold to it; you’ve paid for it, might as well wear it.

But the larger problem is the inability for people to cooperate in the face of these identities. They are overly focused on preexisting identities, unable to make decisions that benefit themselves the most because they are too worried over group dynamics. If your team is winning, it’s less likely you’ll agree to postpone or cancel the game due to inclement weather.

You often see splintered groups insulate themselves in various ways, including jargon/accent/language changes. These changes are natural reactions to the separation from a larger group: let’s stop using the inherited terminology and adopt our own as part of our group identity. You also see this in couples showing affection for one another, people showing affection for their children, and even showing affection for their pets.

More importantly, the splinter group often adopts the same kinds of tactics they splintered away from, such as stereotypes and epithets for the other group’s membership.

The worst case is where we as society have created group identities of whole cloth and then are unhappy with the results. The major examples of this are the so-called ruling class of politicians, the identity of police and prison guards, the other side of that coin in the prison populations, and other similar groups with authority or power.

When we go out of our way to create these groups of people, we mustn’t be surprised at the results. They are indeed a detriment.

Solving these issues is a different matter entirely, and it remains an open problem for further thought.

Conflict and the Demands of Protests

With the Occupation of Wall Street by the dissatisfied masses, the media poses: what do they want?

With the Occupation of Wall Street by the dissatisfied masses, the media poses: what do they want?

But examining the impetus for the protest requires a larger context, of conflict in general.

Conflict represents an imbalance in resources, always.  Whether it’s a dominance fight in the wild, where the resource of control needs allotting, or in warfare where the resources vital to the function of society need equilibration, conflict means forcing a decision.

When protesters take to the street, they seek redress.  They do so in a fundamentally civil fashion, though, which separates protest from riot.  Where protest erupts into riot, the cause may be found in the fact that yelling and amassing of people also occurs during violent outbursts, and police conditioning makes them wary, while protester conditioning shows authority to have reactionary tendencies to lash out.

But, again, the question of what the protest wants.  What do they demand?

Excepting the most radical views, conflict wants only a fair shake.  They may believe in one set of outcomes, but they will accept less.  That less is simply a compromise.

Some of the protesters want environmental concerns to be addressed.  They may truly want the end of fossil fuels, for example.  But they will accept a more modest move to minimize the fuel use.

The unemployed want full employment, but they will accept more minor concessions and a general shift in the ambiance of the job market.  For example, they would be glad to see employers begin to give them more feedback regardless of the hiring decision.  They want work, but even a simple response that they are on the right track would be immensely helpful.  Instead, they typically hear nothing, and the lack of reinforcing their behavior is discouraging.

The people with bad mortgage debt would like nothing more than to be free of their bindings, but would feel much better if the banks would simply agree to a refinancing and would set them up with a single point of contact that would provide them with a sense of certainty that their concerns could be voiced in a reasonable manner.

When you go in for surgery, the surgeon is responsible for not only the actual procedure, but for explaining it to the patient.  There’s an accountable party.  But the fact is it doesn’t have to be the surgeon, as long as it’s one particular person that you reliably deal with.

As it stands, the business culture has become disconnected. And that’s no magic.  That’s just bad, collusive dealings.  Dealings that shouldn’t have happened but for irregular leverage.

When you buy a product and have feedback, if you contact the manufacturers, the vast majority of the time they are very helpful, going so far as to give you highly technical details and explanations. They know their products, they work hard on them, and they like to hear unsolicited feedback.

The exceptions are restricted to a few high profile organizations that are more trouble to deal with, typically banks and wireless carriers top that list.  They are service companies, which rely on lock-ins and the like, for continued payment.  Often their service does not require their ongoing diligence to guarantee your satisfaction as a means to ensure payment.

That creates a malformed relationship, much like that between prisoners and guards.  The bank’s loan to you represents a dominance over you, so they feel entitled to bother you and push you around.  See also the Stanford Prison Experiment.

What the protest represents there, is a call against that sort of dominance.  Wall Street represents a continuous tweaking of our entire economy.  When they say jump, we all brace for impact.  But we know that’s an imbalanced relationship.  We know that the government gives them preferential treatment to our detriment.

The same thing with the oil companies, where accidents in natural environments mean they try to escape with as little pain as possible.  We recognize that as a domination of our system, which calls for a change.

So what’s the outcome?  What’s the demand?

A fair shake.  Period.  That the people in charge of writing the laws and understanding/improving the system as a whole (both inside and outside of government) actually pay attention, like the manufacturer when you give feedback.  That Wall Street recognize the vitality of Main Street to their existence.  That the oil companies recognize that Main Street is why they exist, and not the other way around.

It’s really that simple.  They just want a level playing field.  They don’t want profitable companies to be subsidized.  They don’t want socialism, which a major imbalance of wealth represents.  That’s right, having a minority hold a majority of the wealth is just as destructive to capitalism as central-planning by government.  Proper capitalism requires and thrives on distribution of wealth.

I apologize if these ideas are not clear enough.  They are still developing/forming.  I will try to refine them in future posts.