Seeing the world eyes wide open

We tend to think of what we see as being complete and total reality – the objective truth – because to us that is how everything is, right? Wrong! In reality, we may actually see the world not as it is, but as we are conditioned to see it. I often show examples like this in my assemblies to demonstrate that we can all look at exactly the same image, yet see two completely different things.

old lady illusion

What do you see – the young lady or the old lady? Can you only see one but not the other? Sounds bizarre doesn’t it to think that what we are actually seeing in front of us may not be the complete truth or a different reality to the person sat next to us. There is a great TED talk by Isaac Lidsky (anyone of the age to have watched ‘Saved by the Bell’ as a teen will soon recognise him!) on exactly this subject and here is an extract from that same talk:

What we see is a unique, personal, virtual reality that is masterfully constructed by our brain. Let me explain with a bit of amateur neuroscience. Your visual cortex takes up about 30 percent of your brain. That’s compared to approximately eight percent for touch and two to three percent for hearing. Every second, your eyes can send your visual cortex as many as two billion pieces of information. The rest of your body can send your brain only an additional billion. So sight is one third of your brain by volume and can claim about two thirds of your brain’s processing resources. It’s no surprise then that the illusion of sight is so compelling. But make no mistake about it: sight is an illusion. Here’s where it gets interesting. 

To create the experience of sight, your brain references your conceptual understanding of the world, other knowledge, your memories, opinions, emotions, mental attention. All of these things and far more are linked in your brain to your sight. These linkages work both ways, and usually occur subconsciously. So for example, what you see impacts how you feel, and the way you feel can literally change what you see. Numerous studies demonstrate this. If you are asked to estimate the walking speed of a man in a video, for example, your answer will be different if you’re told to think about cheetahs or turtles. A hill appears steeper if you’ve just exercised, and a landmark appears farther away if you’re wearing a heavy backpack. 

We have arrived at a fundamental contradiction. What you see is a complex mental construction of your own making, but you experience it passively as a direct representation of the world around you. You create your own reality, and you believe it.

Let me give you an example closer to home. Do you make snap judgments about people and their character? Yes, well I certainly do, doesn’t everyone or is that just my bad character! Don’t we live in a world that has deep rooted connections to superficial ways of looking at things? (more on this to come on my ‘Quick Fix’ blogs). By simply being more aware of this automatic response (and as in previous posts, aware that we may be part of a problem) we can start to consider how and why we make these snap judgements. If we can start with this one step, we can then clarify and make better use of them.

Before we go any further, I invite you (and try on a team of people you work with if possible) to have an intellectual and emotional experience. Take a few minutes to read the following scenario:

Buying & Selling  a House

  1. You buy a house for £280,000. That’s all-in; no fees extra; no legal fees extra. That’s the lot.
  2. You sell for £290,000. Everything included again. Bottom line of the sale is you get £290,000.
  3. You then buy a new house for £300,000.
  4. Finally, you sell for £310,000.
  5. Now a straightforward set of three questions:

a] are you up on the deal? Or

b] Down on the deal? Or

c] evens?

With no conferring or writing anything down, decide on one of the three options (if there is a group of you, get people to move to 3 different areas in the room).

Once moved, split the ‘UPs’ into two-three further groups – up £20,000 and those up £10,000. There may be a group of £30,000.

Get them to confer in groups and agree why they are right.

Ask them to elect a leader. They will present for 30 seconds to convince people in the other groups to believe them. Any order for the presentations is allowable. No one else can speak for the respective groups, only the appointed leader.

After all presentations have been made, and without conferring with anyone else, ask people to move if they now feel they are in the ‘wrong’ group.

Listen and watch for how people behave. Look at the behaviours.

Say that you will not give the ‘correct’ answer in any circumstance. Even bribery!

I first encountered this exercise in a staff training session led by the Arbinger Institute. The facilitator was using it to demonstrate clearly and eloquently that many people can see and read the same thing, all disagree and yet still all be right. As each of our groups fed back for their 30 seconds on why they were right at being £10,000 up, or £20,000 up or even £30,000 up, with the goal to convince others undecided to follow them, communication soon flared up:

‘What do you mean you are £30,000 up? What about the investment you have had to make on the previous 2 properties?!’

‘What’s the matter with you all, it is clearly a profit of £10,000. You buy your last house for £300,000, sell for £310,000, that is £10,000 profit, duh!’

The arguments went back and forth, each team sure of, and adamant in, their position. Can you see the links to self-deception theory – each team believed they were right and that the problem in not understanding the task, lay with the other teams? By other teams being wrong in their eyes, they became objects to blame, making the ‘blamers’ the victims. However, once each team had had the opportunity to explain their point of view in full, communication became more calm and respectful as other teams began to see others point of view once they had listened fully to their perspective. What was really interesting though was seeing the reaction of team members who changed their mind on where they had initially sat and the reactions of the team members they either left or decided to join.

So what is the lesson in all of this towards a path of good character: The more we can be aware of our perceptions, the more we can take responsibility for them, examine them, listen to others and be open to other perceptions, thereby gaining a much larger objective view.

All making sense? No longer as a novice to this now, your third challenge, what do you see?! Two faces right?

Wrong! Focus on the white area and see the objective truth!

Now consider the many issues that people and organisations face day to day. We can begin to realise that others see exactly the same thing very differently. So in the words of Issac Lidsky, “how do you live your life eyes wide open? It is a learned discipline.

It is not often that leadership training touches on the topic of self-deception, yet its importance on character and culture cannot be understated. When people see the same thing differently, we immediately jump to our defence and think something is wrong with them. Now imagine how our perceptions are framed by our families, by our schools, work environments, social circles, and the extent to which our resulting values lead us in a particular direction and how others may follow a different path. But as these exercises show, seeing people as people, with the same hopes, dreams and expectations as us all, as opposed to seeing people as the ‘object’ or problem, shows sincere clearheaded people who respect how others may see things differently through their unique ‘character lens’.

The good news is that all of these things are malleable, they can be changed for the better, it can be taught, it can be practiced. The theory of self-deception and the work of Arbinger is a critical aspect of our training at King’s Leadership Academy for this very reason.  It all starts with self-awareness and maintaining our integrity as opposed to self-deceiving ourselves and becoming victims, in order to self justify our actions when we break a virtue. But what is really exciting is that if you can find a code or formula for changing for the better, that’s when you can really start to unleash the power of your character!

In future posts, I will show you how the quiet work of behavioural scientists have shown that a different path to good character has existed for decades and why it is now time for education and business to catch up. So remember, the path to the good life starts with the Power of the Problem and being open and aware to seeing solutions to problems and having the willingness to act. The second step, the Power of Perceptions, is an essential part of self-awareness and seeing the whole picture by taking into account other people’s unique character lens and perspective. Put together, both can start to unleash an incredible force within you. The Power of Character! All of these points and much more are available in the book The Power of Character, with a free downloadable chapter available here.

Thanks for reading.


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