Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Invisible gorillas, PJI principle 8, and Cultural Lessons in Barcelona

Parque Güell, Barcelona

Feb 11, 2013: 

Have you seen the 'invisible gorilla' selective attention video?  If you have, and you were one of those who missed the gorilla, like me, then you might be interested in this article published today by Alix Spiegel for NPR, called 'Why even radiologists can miss a gorilla hiding in plain sight.'

You can read the full article (and watch the invisible gorilla video) here, but the gist of it is that, in a selective attention study, 83% of radiologists did not see a picture of a gorilla superimposed on a chest x-ray.  Why not?  Well, the 'obvious' answer is that they weren't looking for gorillas; they were looking for tumors.  Nevertheless, when you look at the picture, it's hard to believe that they could have missed it.

So can it really be the case that you can look right at something and, if it's not what you're looking for, not see it?  We all know the expression 'you see what you want to see', but it might be more accurate, then, to say 'you see what you expect to see.'  Whichever it is, if you are not seeing something that's clearly there, simply because you are not looking for it, that must have important implications for, well, just about everything.  If you're not convinced, here's the conclusion of the NPR article:

'In other words, what we're thinking about — what we're focused on — filters the world around us so aggressively that it literally shapes what we see.' 

Yes, that's pretty powerful.  And it reminds me of something:  Principle 8 of the Valencia Peace and Justice Institute's 'how we treat each other.' 

Principle #8:  Identify assumptions.  Our assumptions are usually invisible to us, yet they undergird our worldview.  By identifying our assumptions, we can then set them aside and open our viewpoints to greater possibilities.  (To see all 13 principles, click here)

I remember reading this for the first time and thinking 'easier said than done!'  If our assumptions are invisible to us, how can we identify them?  It seems an impossible goal.  But perhaps we need to think of our assumptions as the invisible gorilla.  To see the gorilla, you first have to know it's there.  So how do you know whether what you know about the world is real, or whether it's an assumption?  What is reality, anyway?  Is anything real?  Isn't everything just perception?  (Think Matrix, Plato, Sophie's World).  We may never be able to answer these questions, but what's important is that we ask them.  If we keep asking, and keep our minds open to what others are telling us, we may be able to shift our perception enough to spot the gorilla.

So this brings me to a story about a 'spot of bother' I got into last month in Barcelona, and my faulty assumptions that were exposed as a result. I was having a coffee at an outdoor cafe by the port, when a man with a basket of roses approached me.  He handed me a red rose and held his hand out for payment.  I didn't have any cash on me, nor any intention of buying a rose.  So, I smiled at him and explained politely in Spanish that I was sorry, I wasn't carrying cash, and didn't want to buy a rose.  He didn't answer but kept pushing the rose at me and holding out his hand for money.  Assuming it was my poor Spanish that was the problem, I tried again to explain using different words, but it didn't do any good; he started making gestures and noises of desperation and grabbed my hand with his two hands and started pulling on it!  I looked around frantically for the waiter, expecting him to show up any minute and ask the man to leave, but he didn't.  I continued trying to come up with alternative vocabulary to convey the message that I had no cash, and to please leave me alone.  But he wouldn't leave me alone, and the waiter never came to rescue me. 

The point of the story is that my poor handling of the situation was based on no less than three false assumptions, as explained to me later by the waiter.  

Assumption #1:  That I had failed to communicate effectively in Spanish, and that's why the street vendor didn't understand me.  (In fact, it turned out that he was from Pakistan and spoke no Spanish).

Assumption #2:  That the harassing of customers would be speedily and effectively handled by the restaurant management.  (In fact, it wasn't!  And when I asked the waiter whether aggressive selling was allowed on restaurant premises, he shrugged his shoulders and said 'of course, this is Spain.')

Assumption #3:  That the way to refuse an unwanted sales pitch is to smile and decline politely. (In fact, I was told later, that was where I had made my fatal mistake. I was instructed that in future I should ignore street vendors; not smile, not speak.  Behave as if they are not there.  'If you make eye contact, you are doomed!')  Note:  I still find this difficult. From my cultural perspective, ignoring people who approach you is just plain rude.   

Of course, in the overall scheme of things, this minor incident is of no consequence.  But, it does illustrate how strong our invisible assumptions can be -- and could help explain why we keep using the same strategies to problem solve, even in the face of irrefutable evidence that they aren't working!

Pictures from Barcelona, Jan 2013

La Sagrada Familia

Up on the Olympic Hill, with a good view of the port, and the QM2!

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