Daily Archives: May 7, 2012

Malleable Observations

Dr. Mano Singham makes an excellent observation (heh) about people’s recollection of observations:

As a scientist who interacts a lot with the general public, I am often asked to explain phenomena that lay people have observed. I used to take those observations at face value and was often stumped at coming up with an explanation because of the inconsistent elements the observations seemed to contain. But I have found from experience that what people tell me they ‘saw’ is not purely raw observational data but that when you go back and actually repeat the situation, the observations are different from what was originally reported and that much of the paradoxical elements go away.

This raises an important point. In investigating and explaining any phenomenon, we first have to check if what we saw was ‘real’.

The problem is that our brain’s first reaction is dominated by what Daniel Kahnemann in his excellent book Thinking Fast and Slow (2011) calls ‘System 1′ thinking. What happens is that when people ‘see’ something, their brain immediately kicks in and they try to makes sense of what they saw by subtly shaping the data to fit into a plausible narrative. It is this manipulated data that they are convinced they saw and which they then report later. Reporting it cements the distorted version even further into their memory making them even more convinced of its truth. Magicians use this feature of our brains to fool us into thinking that we saw something that was more amazing than it really was.

This has obvious implications for people’s recollection of their religious experiences. What if your experience isn’t as dramatic as you remember it, because your thief massaged the data to create a sensible narrative and you simply remembered the thief’s story and not the unadulterated experience? Without attempting to repeat the experience, how would you know? Remember, your thief is always awake, and especially loves to take charge when the wizard is asleep or is preoccupied by something else (like stress or depression). And worst of all, the narrative created by the thief is wholly dependent upon your (subconscious) background knowledge.

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Posted by on May 7, 2012 in cognitive science

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