You See What You Expect

Why do smart, sane, honest people sometimes disagree no matter how hard they try to find the truth?

Name an issue:

  • Abortion
  • Feminism
  • Immigration
  • Islam
  • President Trump
  • Racism

My friends and I often have stark disagreements about those issues. But we’re all decent, reasonable people trying to stick to the facts. Why do we see things so differently?

This blog’s photo demonstrates one of the most important reasons. It shows the Ames room illusion.

The photo is a composite of two other photos. One shows a woman standing on the left side of the room. The other shows the woman standing on the right side of the room.

It’s the same woman. She’s the same size. It’s the same room. If you watched her walk from left to right, you’d see her appear to get bigger.

Is it a computer trick? Nope. It’s the room. The floor and ceiling are slanted toward each other, so they’re closer on the right than on the left. The windows aren’t rectangular, but trapezoidal (slanted rectangles).

Since infancy, we’ve seen rooms in which:

  • The floors are parallel to the ceilings.
  • The walls are at right angles to the floors and ceilings.
  • The windows are rectangular.

Our minds instantly, automatically, and unconsciously interpret the Ames room based on that prior experience.

Even if we know about the Ames room, we still can’t help being fooled by the illusion.1

I’ve looked at that photo a dozen times, trying to keep the distortions in mind. The woman on the right still seems bigger.

What’s significant about the Ames room is not that our assumptions affect what we see. We knew that already.

What the Ames room shows is how difficult it is to break free of our assumptions.

And the Ames room is a very simple situation. Our prior assumptions can fool us even there — even when we know we are being fooled.

So it’s no surprise if we have trouble agreeing on complex social and moral issues, as well as the facts surrounding them.

We can be trying our very best to see things clearly, but our unconscious assumptions still end up fooling us.

We can’t always find our way out of the Ames room.

But if we discuss things calmly, openly, and in a spirit of goodwill, we’ve got a much better chance.

Footnote

  1. Primitive tribal people with no exposure to civilization are not fooled by the Ames room. They see it as it actually is.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
This entry was posted in Human Relations, Life, Philosophy, Political Science, Psychology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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