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Michael Brown and Eric Garner: Four Cognitive Illusions That Illustrate Why We Don't All See The Same Reality

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We're constantly looking at the world around us. As we do so, we record millions of images. Then we interpret what they mean and organize them into categories. No doubt most of us understand that our interpretations vary as a function of our culture, our politics, and all sorts of other individual and group differences.

But it's not just the organization that differs. Our very perception of reality is often quite different from that of others, even when we set our eyes upon the very same thing. This is partly why talking about the situation in Ferguson is as frustrating as it is, even with our family members. Below are four sets of perceptual illusions that illustrate a few of the ways that different people (or even the same person!) may see the same social reality differently.

1. Background/Foreground or What's the Focus?

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Our mind seems unable to focus on foreground and background at the same time. Often, this is adaptive. We know what we want to foreground and our brain accommodates our preferences. But sometimes, it is the so-called background that might be more important, or at least equally important. What do you see in the images below? Keep looking...you should be able to see something else, as well.


Importantly, what we see as foreground versus background is also relevant socially. A few days ago, high school students in my local community were holding a rally outside the high school to protest the grand jury decisions in the police shooting deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The rally, which was approved by school officials, was designed to take place on school grounds but spilled over to the street in front of the school. While the students were on the street, a woman attempted to drive a car through the group of students [see video]. Students responded by hitting the car and apparently did some damage to the glass. The event was reported by the local newspaper:

Some of them [students] walked into Crescent Drive in front of the school. As that occurred, a vehicle travelled through the crowd. At least one of the students struck the vehicle's window and caused damage to the glass, according to police, who were called to the scene. [see full article]

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Notice how the article places the damage to the car in the foreground. The car was not driven through the group of students, it just somehow "travelled through the crowd" -- the passive voice. But when it comes to the damage to the car, it didn't just happen. Rather "one of the students struck the vehicle's window" -- the active voice.

One could have just as legitimately focused on the fact that someone tried to drive a car through a group of protesting students. Arguably, that's not only the more interesting story but also the one that's more newsworthy, but if we get our information from just a single source, our understanding of the truth will be necessarily limited by a particular reporter or a particular media source's intentional or unintentional focus.

In many ways, the entire public discourse/debate about Ferguson can be seen as a disagreement about what is (or should be) the primary focus and what is (or should be) the background. For the police and their supporters, the focus is on the threat that Brown and others pose to both their own safety and to that of the community they patrol. For those who are rallying and otherwise protesting their deaths, Brown's and Garner's behavior is background to the real story, which is how police dehumanize (by seeing them as a threat rather than as a person) people of color in general and Black men in particular.

Notably, for both sides, the incidents involving Brown and Garner are representative of a larger morality issue. Thus, we hear the language of "thugs" and "black rage" -- words intended to carry negative connotation -- used to describe what some see as the criminal nature of certain communities, even though the same language can, just as easily, be used to describe those who support and maintain the structures that create dissatisfaction and aggression in those communities, as demonstrated in this piece on "white rage". Even something as lacking in subtlety as rage, it seems, depends on the focus of one's attention.

2. Distance

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When we are far away from something, we see the broad strokes but not the fine lines.

If we look at the image on the left, most of us will probably see a skull. But if we get up close, we can see that it is actually something VERY different. This is true not only in regard to physical distance but social and emotional distance as well. Thus, African Americans often see certain things differently from white Americans in regard to race, because they are much closer to the many ways that racism and racial bias operate in our society. Interestingly, though most of us would not presume to tell someone standing much closer that they are seeing things incorrectly, when it comes to racism, this is exactly what often happens.

To be sure, it's possible to get so close to something that it is no longer possible to clearly see the entirety of it. Maybe some white people think African Americans are so close to racism that they are no longer able to see where it starts and ends so that their entire reality seems racist. The point here is not to discern who is seeing more clearly -- this will surely differ person to person and situation to situation -- but to point out that our social and emotional distance to something can have a powerful impact on our perceptions.

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Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a teaching associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches Psychology of Race and Ethnicity, Theories of Psychotherapy, and a graduate-level courses on restorative justice. An autobiographical essay of Mikhail's interests in race relations and basketball is available here.

Since 2009, Mikhail has been studying and working with conflict, particularly via Restorative Circles (a restorative practice developed in Brazil by Dominic Barter and associates) and other restorative responses to conflict. Together with Elaine Shpungin, he now supports schools, organizations, and workplaces in developing restorative strategies for engaging conflict, building conflict facilitation skills and evaluating the (more...)
 

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