Reality may not be what it seems
Perception isn’t just based on what you see. Your perception, meaning your experience of reality, is also based on your physical abilities, your energy levels and feelings, your social identity, and other factors. Read on to find out how your perception of reality may just happen to be a bit distorted!
The Placebo Effect
You’re feeling pretty blah, and you have a handful of symptoms to prove that it isn’t all in your head. Your mother says she might have “just the thing” to make you feel better. In fact, it’s been proven to be just as effective as other medications. Nope, it’s not chicken soup (though that might work, too!). It’s a placebo (pluh-see-bow): any kind of medical treatment that seems to be real but actually isn’t.
The placebo could be a pill, shot, or other form of “fake” cure, but whatever it is, it has no active ingredients that really affect your health. And yet, the placebo can sometimes be just as effective as medication. Scientists have studied the placebo effect — and used it — to help treat everything from pain to depression and more.
How can believing that a treatment will be effective actually make it effective?
Researchers think part of why it works is because believing something is real triggers a response in the brain as if it were actually real. So, the brain thinks you’re taking medicine, and it triggers our immune system to power up, or it causes certain hormones to be released. There’s still so much about the placebo effect that we don’t understand, but we do know one thing: The mind is very, very powerful!
The Schleppy Problem
You missed your ride home from school. It’s not that bad, because school’s only a few blocks from your house. But you’re feeling so, so tired today. And your teachers gave you a boatload of homework, so your backpack weighs approximately two-and-a-half tons. As you schlep up the hill toward your street, you think, “Has this hill always been so steep?”
Guess what? Your energy level and your physical abilities actually change the way you see the hill. Researchers have proven that if you’re extremely tired, distances actually look farther. And if you’re wearing a heavy knapsack, the hill will look steeper to you than to a person who carries no load. Weird, right?
They’ve also found that if you’re carrying one of those grabber thingies (you know, those things that custodians might use to pick up litter in a park), objects actually appear closer to you. (That’s because your reach has been extended.) Studies have also shown that people holding heavy clipboards are more likely to give importance to issues related to fairness than people holding lighter clipboards.
So, scientifically speaking, your physical circumstances affect the apparent walkability of a hill or a distance, the accessibility of an object, or the importance of being fair. You’re not seeing the real hill or the real distance. You’re seeing it as you see it. Think about that for a minute!
The Big Bias
Here’s something you’ve noticed lately: Whenever you use your special pencil from Savta, you do better on your tests. Could it possibly be that you have a lucky pencil on your hands?
If you believe that the pencil brings you good mazel when you take exams, you’re more likely to focus on all the times that that happens. (And you’re more likely to dismiss or forget about the times that you used the pencil and didn’t do as well as you’d hoped). This is how the psychological concept of “confirmation bias” works: When you believe something, you look for evidence to support it. The pencil isn’t a special mazeldig thing; you just believe it helps you, so you found evidence to “prove” it.
Of course, confirmation bias can be much more complex than this simple pencil example, and we can be far less aware of it. And it can be affected by the light, smells, and sounds in a room, so that those things can become subtle triggers for our biases, too.
Knowing about confirmation bias is a powerful tool to use when you’re trying to be dan l’chaf zechus or understand any confusing situation. Check the evidence. Are you seeing factual information? Try to find a more objective way to examine the situation and you just might be surprised.
Myth Bias: Test It
Want to see firsthand how something called “myth bias” works? Try this!
- Get out a pen and paper.
- Divide your paper into four columns: A, B, C, D
- Picture a girl running into a room crying.
- Under A, write down what emotions the crying signifies and what you think crying says about her. (For example: she’s sad, she’s emotional, she’s weak, she’s a crybaby, whatever you want. There are no right or wrong thoughts!)
- Now add 20 years to that girl’s age and picture her crying.
- Under B, record your thoughts about the woman, as you did in step 4.
- Now add 40 years to that woman’s age and repeat step 4, recording your thoughts under C.
- Finally, picture the crier as an adult man, and repeat step 4, writing your thoughts under D.
How did your responses change in each column? Were they different? Why?
What you see is an example of “myth bias.” All the people you pictured may be crying for legitimate reasons or even the exact same reason, but because of factors like their age, gender, and your own beliefs, you have different perceptions about them.
Seeing a young girl crying may make you think she’s a crybaby, whereas seeing an older woman crying may make you think she’s nostalgic, whereas seeing a man crying may make you think he’s undergoing a major traumatic crisis.
The Hunger Factor
You sit down to take a test, feeling jittery and nervous. Your hand is even shaking a little. You kinda wish you had had that breakfast Mommy was urging you to eat before you left, but there’s nothing you can do about it now. The toast is at home and you’re… toast.
This one may come as no surprise, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting: Being hungry (or satiated) not only affects your choices, it actually changes them. Studies show that the time of day that judges decide whether or not to parole prisoners affects the outcome of their decisions.
If they make parole decisions before they eat lunch, or at the end of the day when they’re hungry for supper, they’re more likely to deny parole. Making the decision to parole a convict requires a lot of thought and, therefore, more energy. If they’re hungry, they’re less likely to grant it.
Similarly, a different study showed that people who drank something containing glucose (the type of sugar your body uses for energy) made smarter decisions than people who didn’t drink it. And another one showed that people who had a big, sweet glass of lemonade were more helpful to other people than those who didn’t. So make sure to eat properly, especially before big tests and important decisions!
The First Impression
You’re shopping for a new bike. The first bike you look at has a price tag of $1,500. There’s no way your parents are going to agree to it. But the salesman says he can get you a special deal: $500 off! You can get a $1,500 bike for only $1,000. WHOA! What a steal! You immediately start calculating how much money you have and how much money your parents said they’d chip in… You don’t want to pass up a bargain like this.
Is it a bargain? Or is the “anchoring effect”? Your belief in the bike’s value is anchored at $1,500. In other words, your first impression affects your later thoughts about that thing — and your decisions regarding them. Sometimes that’s okay. Maybe the bike really is worth $1,500, and $1,000 is a great deal. But often you don’t “anchor” at a reasonable cost.
Researchers studied the anchoring effect by having students bid for a textbook, a wireless mouse, and other items at an “auction.” First, they displayed the items and described them in glowing terms. Then they asked each student to write down the last two digits of their social security number and to pretend that was the price of the item. So, if the last two digits were 90, they wrote down $90. If the last two digits were 31, they wrote down $31, and so on. After recording the fake price, students actually bid on the items. Students who had high social security numbers paid up to 346 percent more than those with low numbers! Yikes!
But the anchoring effect doesn’t just affect how we view prices. It affects all values. For example, if someone you admired scorned the idea of piano lessons the first time you heard about piano lessons, this could affect your feelings about piano lessons forever after. Or, here’s another one: What’s deadlier, a shark or a horse? Most people answer “shark.” That’s because they search their memories for stories of death by shark and death by horse. Shark attacks are common in the news. But you’ve probably never heard of any horse-related incidents. Reality proves otherwise. Horse-related deaths are 20 times more common than shark-related deaths.
First impressions are powerful! The next time you have a strong negative reaction to something, or you think something is worth way more than other people do, it might pay to stop and think about why. What are you anchored in?
The Gorilla Test
You and your best friend are in the middle of a major DMC. You’re so absorbed that you don’t notice one of your classmates pass out on the lawn right near you. It isn’t until a major crowd gathers and a Hatzolah team shows up that you even realize something is going on. Whoa, how did you miss that?
What you just experienced has a name: “inattention blindness.” It’s when you actually fail to see something that’s right in front of your eyes. This is the same phenomenon that makes drivers on cell phones more likely to be involved in an accident.
In a famous study on inattention blindness, a group of people were filmed tossing and passing balls to each other. Participants were asked to focus just on the people wearing white and to count how many times those people passed the ball. Participants were so intent on watching the ball tossers and counting the tosses that they completely missed someone in a gorilla suit enter the scene. He not only crossed in front of the group, he stopped and pounded on his chest and walked to the other side and off camera. Numerous participants didn’t see gorilla man at all!
When you’re focusing strongly on something, you have a lower “working memory capacity” (less attention) for other things. And people have different abilities to focus. So, when you see something that someone else doesn’t, or they see something you don’t, it really might be the case. We can completely miss major details in life. Just try not to miss actual gorillas!
The Shared Burden
You’re staring down the driveway. How will you ever shovel all that snow? And why does it seem so much worse this time than last time? Oh, well, last time your brother was there, too.
Ever heard the saying that a burden shared is a burden halved? Turns out it’s pretty true… even just in terms of our perception of a burden. Studies show that if you think someone’s going to help you carry a heavy load, you actually think it’s lighter than if you think you’re going to have to carry it alone. (And that’s before you even pick it up.)
Holding hands with someone during a painful event can make it feel less painful. And even just thinking about a friend can make hills seem less steep. Interesting, right?
Even if your siblings can be kind of a pain now and then, having other people around makes things seem easier. Makes you appreciate ‘em a little more…
The Truth Trigger
You notice an ad in a local circular. It seems like everything it’s saying is absolutely true. Usually, you don’t pay so much attention to advertisements, but this one, with its short statements and bold black letters, just speaks to you. What’s going on?
Statements that are easy to read seem truer than those that are harder to read — even if they aren’t true at all or if there’s no difference between the meanings.
Researchers tested this by asking study participants to evaluate the truth of a statement like “Lima is in Peru.” When it was written in easy-to-read colors, participants were more likely to say it was true than when it was written in hard-to-read hues.
Also, statements that were written in rhyme, like “woes unite foes,” were judged to be truer than statements that didn’t rhyme, like “sorrows unite enemies.”
This tendency of ours is easily corrected — as long as you can find it or point it out to others. Otherwise, though, we tend not to even notice it’s happening. We can be tricked by how easy it is to read or believe something, or how easily we can remember it. This is why we’re really susceptible to total baloney and we’re vulnerable to fake news, rumors, and urban myths. Kinda creepy, isn’t it?
There’s a lot going on at the subconscious level. Our minds trick us according to what we believe, think, feel, and perceive. Learning about the way our perceptions can be inaccurate or skewed is pretty humbling. And being more aware of them should, with siyata d’Shmaya, help keep us from judging others wrongly and from getting into conflicts with those who just might see things a little differently.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 903)
Oops! We could not locate your form.