Daily Dose: What does a visual illusion have to do with politics? Everything.

October 2, 2017


There have been so many significant events happening over this recent week that could impact the state of our politics and nation. As a result, there will be a flood of statements that have the potential to negatively influence people without them even being aware. Therefore, this is a good week to look at recent events in the context of people's perceptions, and how statements and actions (or inactions) about recent events like Puerto Rico, Healthcare, and Voter ID shape people's perceptions of each other and the world around them - with consequences for millions of people, and for years to come. As such, it's critically important for us to be conscious of these effects, so that we may respond and provide people with a counter to fear and hate.


During this week's Daily Doses, I'll look at each of the  above issues (Puerto Rico, Healthcare and what Ron Johnson said, and Voter ID) individually. But first, let's have some fun with our perceptions.


Thanks to a follower on Twitter, I saw a recent article in Slate that featured a classic cognitive illusion.  Here it is:



Look at the red dot. Which way are the surrounding circles rotating? Counterclockwise, right? Now look at the yellow dot. Which way are the surrounding circles rotating? Counterclockwise again, right. Now, look at the red dot again and use your peripheral vision to look at the rotating circles around the yellow dot. Which way are they rotating now? CLOCKWISE! No matter how fast you look from one to the other, you get the same result. 


Our vision is our most accurate sense. So why does this happen? The author of the Slate article has a good summary of why this happens:


"It (the illusion) shows that what we take for granted—what we see faithfully and accurately represents reality—is a load of fertilizer. We are most definitely not seeing the world the way it is! The world is sending out signals (via light, sound, and more) that get filtered through multiple layers of our meat-based sensors; through our eyes, our nerves, our brain. That data gets compacted and reassembled and interpreted and at any and every point it gets changed."


A more detailed (and entertaining) discussion of our perception of reality, and how our brain evolved, can be viewed in a Ted Talk from cognitive scientist Dr. Donald Hoffman. It's worth the twenty minutes. 


This illusion and others like it show us very graphically that our brains shape and conform our perceptions in ways that we cannot possibly perceive consciously. If our most accurate sense can be fooled by something as simple as color and spatial orientation, consider how our brain processes and conforms reality in order for us to process complex political problems, issues, and statements!


Above all else, the importance of effective messaging and cognitive framing can help us be consciously aware of these effects and intrinsic biases, and find ways to communicate important truths about politics and policy that can be accepted in spite of the "illusion."


Tomorrow, I'll look at what happened, what's being said, and what's being done (or not done) in Puerto Rico that's shaping people's perceptions.

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