The modern study of the Psychology of Perception really started with the work of Bruner, Postman and Goodman in the 1940s (https://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Bruner/Cards/). Bruner and Postman showed through tachistoscopic exposure (https://www.thefreedictionary.com/tachistoscopic) that humans don’t see the world as it is but rather filter all they see through: experience, culture, societal dynamics, knowledge, family history, environment and a host of social influences that provide cues in how to interpret visual images. Perception is ‘learned’.
One of the early experiments of Bruner and Postman demonstrated how humans are ‘atuned’ to seeing things as their culture dictates. From the age of 3 months all children learn to ‘read’ emotions from facial expression and the accompanying ‘feeling’ associated with that emotion (see Fuchs, Raaven etc). Bruner’s card experiment used ordinary playing cards with some cards that were tricked. The main finding of this experiment and a host of other similar experiments with objects, human faces and emotions is, that the human recognition threshold for the incongruity is significantly higher than normal according to cultural definition (see figure 1.)
When I started my first education degree in 1970, J.S. Bruner was foundational in understanding child and adolescent development and how perception is learned. It was Bruner (1957) who demonstrated that children learn visually according to context and that perceptual readiness varies from child to child according to context (https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1958-04908-001). Bruner and Goodman (https://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Bruner/Value/) demonstrated that value, language and need (cultural foundations) also shape perception with their coin experiment and many other experiments supporting their findings. Visual perception is also embodied that is, our perception is also condition by how we ‘feel’ more than the physicality of the object itself (https://consciouslifenews.com/conditioning-belief-perceptual-filters/11100887/# ).
When I was a child I remember our driveway in Sydney as being so steep and scary. We would race down it into the garage and struggle to put the brakes on the billycart before hitting the wall of the garage. The thrill of racing towards a shed wall lingered in my memory for years. I was able to visit the house we lived in 40 years later only to discover just how mild a slope it was.
Bruner showed that the factors that motivate us also condition what we see. Similarly, Bruner explained why people underestimate and overestimate everything from distance, value, time and experiences (https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0022022116661243 ). There are a plethora of experiments that show that even criminal prejudice is shaped simply by colour, dress and language in court! (Balcetis and Lassiter (2010) Social Psychology of Visual Perception and Bruner, (2002) Making Stories: Law, literature, life; Bruner and Amsterdam (2000) Minding the Law; and Gibson, (1979) The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception)
One of the fascinating biases of the STEM-only view of risk is the naïve belief that perception is both objective and veridical (ie. representational of the real). This is simply not so. In some of my workshops (https://www.humandymensions.com/services-and-programs/mirisc-workshop/; https://www.humandymensions.com/services-and-programs/culture-program/ ) we undertake experiments demonstrating just how much everything in visual and mindful (embodied) perception is ‘interpreted’. If we have a group of 16 people we get 16 variations to such simple questions as, ‘how long would it take to drive to Newcastle?’ How much does a wheelbarrow of sand weigh? How long would it take to push that barrow up and back a building site? When I ask ambiguous questions and paradoxical questions the variations in answers are so broad one would wonder if the people in the workshop live in the same world. This aspect of this perception distortion is known as the Einstellung Effect (https://tammylenski.com/einstellung-effect-in-problem-solving/; https://exploringyourmind.com/einstellung-effect/ ). Human reality is mostly constructed hence in Social Psychology the label Constructivism.
When it comes to text, perception variation and interpretation (hermeneutics) is even more pronounced. People wonder why there is one Bible but 1000 denominations or one god and 1000 religions, hmmm!
In risk and safety, people are profoundly mis-educated about the objectivity of text namely, the WHS Act, Regulation, Standards and Risk Assessments (SWMS). The opposite is the case, the WHS Act and Regulation are profoundly subjective and this is why the STEM-only worldview struggles so much with the ways the Law is interpreted and the way justice is administered in risk (https://vimeo.com/162493843 ). This is a sad indictment of an industry that is yet to have an element of ethics or critical thinking in its curriculum (https://safetyrisk.net/isnt-it-time-we-reformed-the-whs-curriculum/) both essential for the development of being professional. This is why I undertook a series of videos, podcasts and books with Greg Smith to demonstrate just how far out of skew the risk and safety industry is with the way it understands law. (https://www.humandymensions.com/product/risky-conversations/; https://spor.com.au/podcasts/risky-conversations-talking-book/; https://vimeo.com/showcase/3938199).
So, does this mean there is no reality? Of course not, except to say that much of what we assume to be real is interpreted as it fits our worldview which means, some things are real for us but there is certainly no common sense! The best way to understand how worldviews are constructed is to travel the world and experience just how much perceptions of reality vary across cultures. Or better still, travel around your city (eg. Sydney) and move between Lakemba, Kings Cross and Vaucluse. Hang around the entrance to the Wayside Chapel Kings Cross (https://www.waysidechapel.org.au/ ) for a few minutes and ‘feel’ how people understand risk! It doesn’t take long to work out that a street person or homeless person doesn’t see the world of risk like you!
Hence the importance to learn a person’s ‘worldview’ as part of any education and learning in risk. This is the foundational work of an Ethic of Risk and Transdisciplinarity. Variation in worldview is often why people are so challenged with new ideas because the necessity for the feeling of comfort and safety precedes the capability to learn. It is much easier according to a culture of safety or perception of safety to demonize enemies (and visionaries) so one doesn’t have to be confronted with alternative perceptions. There are many programs out there in the safety world that ensure that nothing changes, regardless of how they are branded.
When I write my Newsletters (https://spor.com.au/downloads/newsletter-archive/ ) I usually include a competition about perception as a way of reinforcing the fundamentals of perception. Trying to find a cat in a field is not much different from discerning risk on site. The psychology of perception ought to be foundational for every safety person. Once one has studied a bit on the psychology of perception then the next step is to undertake the challenge of imagination, the essential for all risk assessment and incident investigations. If your incident investigation program doesn’t understand both perception and imagination its probably of little value.
So by now you have looked at the cards in this blog and have seen the trick, how long did it take? Why?