The Illusion of “Right”

(Start at Part 1 if you missed it).

Take a look at the picture to the left. Which square is lighter; A or B?

Of course it is obvious this is an optical illusions. We are accustomed to these and quite enjoy them. Yet, no matter how hard we try, we cannot make ourselves physically see A & B as the same colour. Why?

Our brains are incredible that’s why.

Many things we experience are actually at least partially fabrications created by our brain.

Since we started with an optical illusion, let’s take sight, for example. Many people think they have very good peripheral vision, but in reality we have only a very narrow field of “high resolution” sight. Our peripheral vision is essentially incredibly blurry, but we don’t experience it that way. Why?

Because our brain is an incredible thing … however it happens (the jury is still out) information from our peripherals is sent to brain and the brain “guesses” what is there based on the information it has at it’s disposal. For example, if you were just looking at a tree and moved your eyes to the house, your brain would “remember” the tree is there and what it looks like and you would feel like you could still see the tree clearly … despite it being almost entirely out of focus in reality.

The magnificence of our brains is also on display in that illusion seen above. Our brain automatically “adjusts” the relative lightness of objects based on whether they are in shadows or not. In this case, until you actually remove the shadow from the image you will be unable to determine the squares are the same colour (with your senses).

In the vast majority of situations, this brilliance of the brain serves us well, but it also makes it “hackable” and thus we have illusions.

I could also go on to talk about our memories and how eye-witness testimony is among the least reliable in court cases (even the best attempts at recalling information have proven to get at least 25% of the information incorrect) despite still being used with great regularity and assigned much credibility. (For more information on this, do a simple Google search or read the book that became a source of mine for much of this series of posts; “Being Wrong” by Kathryn Schulz).


All of these things go to show us we can be very wrong not just about our opinions or things we have read about second hand, we can be very wrong about things we have experienced ourselves; seen with our own eyes.

This sounds horrible at first glance, but it’s really not all that bad. In fact, as I mentioned above, it’s part of the brilliance of our brains.

It turns out we are incredibly efficient at drawing major, sweeping conclusions from very minimal information. Although we claim to value “sufficient” evidence or a thorough collection of the facts, in actuality we form our conclusions virtually immediately. Recent research actually suggests we draw conclusions about the people we meet in the first two seconds of interacting with them. How much information can we possibly accumulate about a person in two seconds? And yet this minuscule period of time appears to determine how we will perceive and relate to people around us.

This ability is what enables us to move quickly – to get on with life without having to stop and ensure we have every possible piece of information to make a decision. As anyone who has ever tried to make a decision by collecting “every possible piece of information” knows, that magical state of being will NEVER arrive. We never have all the information and waiting for it will only cause us never to move at all; never to make a decision.

And so, we do something called inductive reasoning. We don’t determine what is “true”, but rather we quickly determine what is “probable”. This reasoning is based on our prior experiences of the world around us — we form our conclusions by comparing this new situation to things we have experienced in the past.

We don’t evaluate new information neutrally; we evaluate based on theories we already have and things we have experienced before.

Because of this, our brains are able to come to conclusions based on virtually no (new) information and yet be confident in making a decision — and, in general, this serves us well.

We trust our past experiences and efficiently add new information to the “story of us” and forge ahead. We don’t know for certain our inductions are correct, but we do know they are somewhat more likely to be right than the next best theory our brain can come up with on the fly (on the fly can equal as little as two seconds as we have seen).

This means that while whatever story we create has been determined by us to have a very high probability of correctness, it also contains the possibility of being wrong.

This, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. After all, being wrong is what enables us to grow, to change, to discover new things, to explore. As long as we are able to remember that anything we perceive with our minds (and senses) is “probable” and not “certain”, we can learn new things, change our minds, turn directions, and course-correct.

But this doesn’t seem to happen as often as it should. The problem with our ability to draw quick conclusions is it has a shadow side as well.

It turns out that while small bits of information are enough to allow us to draw a conclusion, even mountains of new information will struggle to convince us to revise these conclusions. We seem to take what little information we have, form theories and connections based on the probability it is correct, and then ignore the possibility we could be wrong and instead take a giant leap to certainty that forcefully fights off further information that may support alternative explanations/theories/opinions/etc …

But that’s for next time.


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