Everyone thinks they know what perception is – it’s perceiving what is out in the ‘real’ world. We take this as meaning the information from our senses, most commonly what we see, hear, smell, taste and touch. It’s very one-directional the traditional approach to studying perception, it’s all about receiving the information from the external world and translating it into something meaningful.
This isn’t wrong by any means, but it’s also massively limiting. Perception is about reality, all of it, not just the bits we can see and hear, it’s also about the behaviour and thoughts we have that affect what we see and hear, it covers every aspect of what it means to be human.
Your brain makes predictions (hypotheses) about everything it processes, in terms of perception this means, making predictions about what the eyes, ears, etc, are registering, or perceiving. Your brain literally constructs your reality. I don’t want to look at how it does this, at least not here, what I want to look at are some of the things which inform the predictions our brain makes about the information it receives.
How many times have you seen someone you knew and waved at them across the street? How many times have you looked at an advert and thought about the imagery and what that might mean? Or looked at the people saying a ‘red cup’ is part of a fictional war on Christmas and made assumptions about the people saying this.
Perception is about how our brain cooks up our reality based on the information it gets via our senses. But that doesn’t just mean a one-way system. As it fairly evident from every visual illusion you have ever seen, perception influences how we see our world, and how we try and interact with objects in it. Our perceptual process is a two-way flow of information, constantly being updated with new information coming in. All the information, be that from our senses or our memories and ideals.
I want to use the ‘Red Cup Controversy’ as one example for this post. Starbucks always produces a festive cup for the winter holiday season; I’m not sure it’s the most environmentally sound idea but it’s still a good promotion tactic. In previous years they’ve had snowflakes, snowmen, baubles, reindeer, carol singers and so on, all a white design on a red background. This year (2015) they’ve gone for plain red. And apparently this was cause for people to go a bit crackers, and for the rest of us to watch and wonder whether they’re a bit loopy or we’re missing something.
My perceptual experience and understanding does not give me any reason to think red is even the slightest tiny bit of an issue at all, I instantly associated the red cup with the imminence of Christmas. However, some individuals have felt that a plain red cup is just not Christmassy. They perceive there to be no Christmas symbols present and therefore feel it is anti-Christmas.
Why are there perceived to be no so-called Christmas symbols? Because there is no pattern, some do not perceive the colour red itself as being one of the symbols of Christmas. Starbucks went for simplicity this year to promote a message of inclusion, according to their various responses, and decided to allow customers to create their own doodles (as they have been doing for years with the regular white cups).
Works for me, Christmas is synonymous with red as far as I can see – there’s that fella Santa Claus for a start. What confused me is why a few individuals couldn’t see this. From a Christian perspective the red is said to symbolise the blood of Christ, the apples on the tree in the Garden of Eden and the colour of St Nicholas’ robes (who was a bishop and where the entire concept of Santa Claus started).
Red is also the colour of purity according to the Aztecs, and they used the red poinsettia (a popular Christmas plant as it flowers in December) to dye clothes worn by individuals as communication that they were clean, pure and sacred.
It is no accident that Hindu’s have red as their key colour of marriage ceremonies, it is the colour of purity. In most cultures red is synonymous with love: red roses and hearts are given on St Valentine’s day. In China red is a symbol of good fortune and is everywhere. And let’s not forget that blood is red, and blood is evidence of life. There’s an overwhelming amount of evidence for red being a good colour, one that should never cause offence when used in packaging.
But according to some individuals, they perceive red as the colour of the devil because fire is red, there’s fire in hell, and therefore red is an evil colour. That is their perception and it’s based on preconceived ideas, so they have difficulty perceiving alternative points of view because their memories and schemas (cognitive shortcuts) are wired through their experiences. We always forget that our perception and how we see the world is developed, just like everything else, from our experiences.
Cooper and Blakemoore raised kittens in boxes so that they could only see one orientation of line. The poor kittens then became blind to any other orientation of line because their visual system was simply not developed to process them. The poor things bumped into things once released from their boxes because their brains were unable to process the information around them properly, they were blind to anything not at an angle their visual system could process.
We do this too, we learn from our experiences and there is a bias to what we process as a result. If we’re not paying attention to something, it really is not processed by our visual system and we are literally blind to it as a result. [I’m using literally in the correct context here, just in case you’re a budding Sheldon Cooper!]
We are biased to process what we are thinking about most as this is what informs our behavioural goals. If you’ve been told you have to go on a diet (but really don’t want to) you’ll most likely see the most delicious junk food everywhere. If you’ve had salad for lunch you’ll notice the people at the next table have pizza and your mouth will salivate (yes, much like Pavlov’s poor dogs) and you will want to assist them in the eating of their pizza.
Quick question – would you have noticed if you too had just eaten pizza? No, you would not, because your behavioural goal would have been satisfied and you would be on to the next thing. But if you’re on a diet, you didn’t get the food your brain had essentially fixated upon so all you can see, smell and taste is the pizza you’re not eating – and your hypothalamus is telling your gut that it wants pizza, so ghrelin is released and your tummy rumbles, ensuring you get a physical reminder that your brain is perceiving the lack of pizza as a serious issue. It then takes enormous willpower to resist the urge to eat pizza later in the day.
Information in the environment you have perceived has modified your behavioural goals and affected the release of neurotransmitters and hormones in your body, and created something called a cognitive bias. So now your body and mind are fixated on a new topic, and all stimuli you now encounter will be interpreted in the context of your cognitive bias and the physical reaction to it.
Easier to just eat the pizza in the first place I reckon, but this is just an example and it’s how cognitive biases work. They essentially prejudice our brain into cherry-picking the available sensory information, our perceptions, in a way that supports the bias.
Those who object to the ‘red cup’ would rather have snowflakes and reindeer on their Christmas paraphernalia than a simple colour that is a symbol of purity because their cognitive bias for Christmas involves snowflakes, fir trees, singers, presents and reindeer. And all because this is what the marketing business as decreed this is what symbols ought to represent Christmas internationally.
Facts are irrelevant to cognitive biases, the cognitive bias works on interpretation of evidence, not on explicit fact. In the UK we rarely get snow at Christmas, but we get lots of Christmas cards with snow on and a HUGE discussion every year about whether we’re going to get a White Christmas (unlikely even if there is some snow around). The reindeer are there to pull Santa’s sleigh. Well with St Nicholas originating in Germany and reindeer being native to Iceland, and typically unable to fly, I reckon this is more than averagely implausible. But this makes no difference to the symbols we associate with Christmas though, our cognitive bias remains intact despite implausible flying reindeer and the absence of snow.
What we perceive is not reality, our perception is what bits of sensory information our brain decides to process plus the stuff we already know. Our reality is not the same as anyone else’s. Which is perhaps why it’s been so difficult for each side in the ‘Red Cup Controversy’ to understand what the other is talking about. Opinions are always the result of cognitive biases, even when people are trying to be objective.
Our perceptual system relies heavily on our attentional system, we process what we attend to, and we attend to whatever is necessary for our behavioural goals. Our behavioural goals might be looking at a picture, reading a book, looking for a car we want to buy, or they may be heading to a Green Day concert and you’re on the look-out for anyone else who might be going. All of these activities need us to pay attention and process very specific things. So our brain is primed to process them. If we are not primed to process something there is no guarantee we will actually perceive it. Just like with the colours disappearing, if we don’t pay attention to something in our world (be that a person, a situation or a viewpoint) then we don’t see it.
So we don’t always pay attention to things, we have also got these cognitive biases that skew our brain into responding to particular things and thinking in a particular way, so it’s no wonder we have trouble perceiving what is going on around us accurately. We might interpret a conversation or action in correctly, we might focus on the wrong bit of what someone is saying and a misunderstandings might ensue. We might make assumptions based on what we interpret a situation to mean, but somebody else might interpret everything differently based on how their brain is processing the world.
Perception is subjective and entirely skewed by what we’re thinking about, wanting to see and do, and what we’re biased to respond to.
We need to remember that we’re not all perceiving the world the same way and we do not have the same cognitive biases which might lead to a particular interpretation of, for example, the colour red. Yes, we think the reactions of some are strange but only because we are unable to perceive the world as they do.
Opening up our eyes and trying to look at other perspectives enables us to perceive alternative points of view, ideas and concepts. And it is this taking off of the ‘blinkers’ that will help us communicate better, leading to fewer misunderstandings.
Whether the ‘Red Cup Controversy’ was a marketing ploy or whether there really is a backlash going on, I hope that this blog shows a few people that perception is entirely subjective, we don’t always see what, or whom, is right in front of us. What we should do is look around us and talk to others with different opinions; ask calmly why someone is so offended by what seems so insignificant to us. Talking allows us to communicate our perceptions with others and reduce or avoid misunderstandings, promoting understanding and tolerance of others’ viewpoints. We can change our cognitive biases and what we perceive our reality to be, we just need to be open to seeing the world from others’ perspectives.