Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 6, Issue 3;   January 18, 2006:

Filtered Perceptions

by

How we see things influences how we see things, almost like a filter or sunglasses. What are your filters?

It's December, and I'm visiting family for our seasonal reunion, staying at my mother's home. As every year, we'll be celebrating the holidays and my niece's birthday. This visit has some interesting family dynamics, like all such visits, but that's another story. The lesson for me this year is about perceptions.

The Soyuz TMA-09M spacecraft is seen reflected in the glasses of Expedition 36 backup Flight Engineer Rick Mastracchio of NASA

The Soyuz TMA-09M spacecraft is seen reflected in the glasses of Expedition 36 backup Flight Engineer Rick Mastracchio of NASA. Photo by Bill Ingalls, courtesy U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

It's a cold winter day, and I decide to buy a birthday gift for my niece. My mother lives near three shopping malls, and my destination is the mall furthest away. You can't quite see it from the front window, but it isn't very far, so I decide to walk.

This choice astounds my mother, who insists that I drive. I don't know how long the walk will be, but I'm guessing maybe a little more than an hour. With assurances to my mother about my physical abilities, I bundle up and set off.

Cutting across parking lots and shopping mall landscaping, I arrive at the store, make my purchase, and return in just under 30 minutes. My mother is surprised, but even I am shocked. How could my time estimate have been so far off?

I suddenly realize that I haven't walked much around here — it's an automobile world, with highways, red lights, and heavy traffic. My perceptions of distances are really perceptions of the time it takes to drive. I had been using a driving filter to project a walking experience.

It's a common mistake. We think we're making valid extrapolations when we aren't. Here are some of the filters that distort our perceptions.

This is just like that
Sometimes we believe that the situation we face is familiar when it actually isn't. This is the mistake I made.
How We often think
that we're seeing
things as they are
when we aren't
does this situation differ from the situations you know? How is it similar? Are the differences and similarities important?
Bias and preference
Especially if they're very strong, our biases and preferences affect our judgment.
Our biases sometimes arise from our investments. What's at stake? Is there much to gain or lose?
Illusions of independence
If someone who commands us with authority requires a certain course of action, then our judgment about its feasibility is possibly suspect. And the same is true if the contemplated action is fashionable.
To accept that authority or fashion influences our perceptions is to accept our limitations — a difficult thing to do.
I'm late, I'm late, for a very important date
If urgent action is required, we sometimes decide that we have no more time to think; no more time for caution.
Usually the opposite is true: with urgency comes enhanced need for thought and caution.

One common filter many of us share is a belief that we, personally, always see things as they are — unclouded by bias, authority, habit, urgency, or fashion. This "no-filter" filter is perhaps the most dangerous filter of all.

Notice those times when you accept your own filtered perceptions as real. What's your favorite filter? Go to top Top  Next issue: The Shower Effect: Sudden Insights  Next Issue

Rick BrennerThe article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as an individual or as an organization. You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More

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See also Emotions at Work and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The side mirror view from an automobileComing December 8: Surviving Incompetence: II
When your organization undertakes a misguided effort that will certainly fail, you have options. One is to head for the exit. To search for a new position in such circumstances requires some care. Example: an internal transfer might not really be an exit. Available here and by RSS on December 8.
A gray wolfAnd on December 15: Do My Job
A popular guideline in modern workplaces is "do your job." The idea is that if we all do our jobs, success is most likely. But some supervisors demand that subordinates do their own jobs, plus the jobs of their supervisors. It rarely works out well. Available here and by RSS on December 15.

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Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

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