What do I want to see?

Years ago, I accidentally ended up being a data analyst.

In the 80’s in London, most musicians/artists/writers/actors turned to working in Market Research during hard times, as it was casual work and reasonably well paid. It was actually a great way to network, and many bands formed in Market Research call centres. One day you’d be sitting next to a Shakespearean actor interviewing travellers about airlines, another day, Orlando Bloom would be interviewing readers of the Sunday Telegraph, or a wildlife photographer would be earning his airfare to Argentina.

Anyway, one thing led to another and I ended up being a Senior Research Executive*. I loved data (still do) and to look for stories and patterns in data was no hardship for me. I even learned geek speak.

The reason I’ve brought this up, is that I was very fortunate at that time to be introduced to some very interesting insights from the world of psychology, that are still useful to me today.

The area I’m thinking of today is confirmation bias, which can be described as “a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions.” It’s something to be aware of when analysing and interpreting data, but it can also be applied to our daily life in the form of selective perception. We see what we want to see, or what we expect to see.

Francis Bacon wrote: “The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate. And therefore it was a good answer that was made by one who, when they showed him hanging in a temple a picture of those who had paid their vows as having escaped shipwreck, and would have him say whether he did not now acknowledge the power of the gods — “Aye,” asked he again, “but where are they painted that were drowned after their vows?” And such is the way of all superstition, whether in astrology, dreams, omens, divine judgments, or the like; wherein men, having a delight in such vanities, mark the events where they are fulfilled, but where they fail, though this happen much oftener, neglect and pass them by. But with far more subtlety does this mischief insinuate itself into philosophy and the sciences; in which the first conclusion colors and brings into conformity with itself all that come after, though far sounder and better. Besides, independently of that delight and vanity which I have described, it is the peculiar and perpetual error of the human intellect to be more moved and excited by affirmatives than by negatives; whereas it ought properly to hold itself indifferently disposed toward both alike. Indeed, in the establishment of any true axiom, the negative instance is the more forcible of the two.” (The New Organon – or True Directions Concerning the Interpretation of Nature)

I have a tendency to be a bit of a dreamer, and to build entire scenarios based on what may or may not be selective perception. It’s important to ask ourselves whether we are seeing what we want to see, or alternatively, only seeing what we expected to see, rather than seeing the bigger picture.

*I left the Research Industry in 2001


2 thoughts on “What do I want to see?

  1. That’s absolutely true, which is why people can go into depression or be traumatised when reality doesn’t conform to their ‘view’.
    On one level, we can see this every day when people discover a colleague or spouse has deceived them: even if a person suspects something, they will ‘choose’ to interpret it differently, despite the obvious signs. They will then factor this in to their ‘world view’ and it may lead them distrust everyone who comes into their life.
    On an esoteric level, that traumatic impact can lead to the Dark Night of the Soul, which is an essential phase if the mind is to become completely free…


  2. The brain is evolved to interpret and work through patterns, which is like the operating system on a computer. The uploaded pattern gives the mind its sense of reality, and its compass to navigate the world. To have alternative patterns clash with the patterns in the human mind can bring a person to their knees, so there is going to be bias, and an opposition against anything that will have such a traumatic impact.


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