Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel prize-winning psychologist associated with growing the field of behavioral economics has spent his career understanding people. He notes that “[people] too often act as if what they see is all there is.”
As if, is an important qualifier. For me its a careful reminder to replace my assumption with a question. It would be simpler to accept the behavior as a logical, thoughtful well reasoned response to the evidence in their midst. A realization my father playfully infused in his children often, our explorer’s club one of its testaments.
Explorers are not witnesses but investigators. Just as Kahneman , his work with Amos Tversky and others demonstrate, people both apply reason and also act, but the two are not necessarily linked and don’t necessarily use or match all the available information. Investigators try to fill in the gaps.
Naturally, our focus is forward. It’s where our eyes face, and our head’s rotation limited to no more than 90degrees makes it impossible to see what’s approaching from behind. It’s one way our hearing enhances perceptions, but it further narrows our attention too. The sounds emitted by emergency vehicles designed to be alarming. They startle and we learn to immediately get out of their way.
Our selective focus, makes it possible for our bodies to keep walking while our brain engages in conversation. Its in those moments we are least likely to notice things in plain sight. The more absorbed in a task, conscious or unconsciously, the narrower or more tightly we rely on selective senses to keep us on track while preserving our thoughts. Our perceptions are not necessarily converging.
My fascination with perceptions and how to shift or change my own as well as others’ was nurtured at home. Dad celebrated when his kids shouted out their discoveries. My mother didn’t appreciate our “New dip” announcements, a spontaneous competition to mix two or more ingredients together in front of her eyes.
Dad turned every opportunity into a learning experience, and the explorer’s club was the weekly shared adventure. As a suburban kid, with grandparents in the city, car rides were a way of life. My mother didn’t drive until I was 9 which meant Dad was both chauffeur and professor.
Simple things like finding and matching patterns such as the license plate game, or identifying the make and model of the cars we passed. Later it was learning how to estimate distances, anticipate responses and/or rework history from multiple perspectives. The ultimate was inviting us to construct hypotheses and then test them in the real world.
I remember him challenging me to stare out my passenger window and see how long it would take before the driver would turn and notice me staring. He’d ask me how they sensed my stare. He invited me to think about the layers of glass, the wind and distance separating us and how their senses managed to overcome them.
I share a similar challenge with friends or my neices and nephews. I invite them to look diagonally across a large intersection, and stare at someone waiting for the light to change. How long does it take before they will notice you are staring? They don’t just happen to turn their heads, their eyes lock with yours.
The idea that we could live in our own little world was a perspective my father constantly prodded. If we were to become responsible, independent and capable we would need to be alert, aware. His playful nudges made clear that blindly following, or mindless parroting of others ideas denied your own star from shining.
The lessons, I realize now were his own practices in framestretching. He instilled in me the willingness to challenge my perceptions by shifting my perspective. He rewarded us for thinking things through. His patience and gentle questions helped us overcome the natural hesitation or first sign of fear by pressing us to look and share what else we were thinking. For Dad there was never just one alternative, there was always at least one more that we had likely hastily discarded.
Sure they were simple tricks, but knowing patterns also meant learning there was always a pattern if you looked hard enough to find it. Explorers question and investigators make the links. Nice to note that all of 5 of Dad’s kids practice these skills differently and continue to enjoy sharing discoveries with one another.
What about you, what discoveries are you sharing? Try questioning instead of assuming and feel free to share what you discover here.