Last weekend we went to Costco to stock up on supplies. Since it was lunch time, we decided a slice of pizza was a good idea. My husband stood in line and I sat at a table. Instead of playing with my phone, I started watching the people around me.
Directly in front of me was a table with a grandfather and two boys. He wore a faded baseball cap and his gray hair curled a bit underneath. His shirt, I noticed, was almost a match to one in my husband’s closet. Creases radiated from his eyes, he laughed and smiled a lot during those few minutes. Mostly he talked, but every once in a while, he’d take a spoonful of ice cream from the cup he held and slowly lick it from his spoon.
The boys looked like they might have just come from the swimming pool. Maybe seven and eight years old. One of them had hair that stood up in all directions. He wore cargo shorts and flip flops. The other had a neon green shirt over bright orange shorts. Bright riotous colors. I figured they had already finished their ice cream. Boys are fast eaters, right?
Just as I’d constructed a whole story in my head…their dad arrived carrying water bottles under his arms and several-plate loads of pizza. He was a large man, likely an ex-football player. “What’s going on?” he asked.
I didn’t hear the answer. Instead of grandpa sliding over to allow dad to sit down too, he got up and walked away from the table. I watched as he headed toward the exit. When I looked back at the table, I realized that I had seriously misinterpreted the situation...
The two boys were glued together on the bench, shoulders smashed against each other. Their twin gazes followed that man…obviously not their grandfather…as he left. Instead of smiling like the stranger had, their faces were serious and their eyes anxious. In fact, they looked scared. HOW COULD I HAVE MISSED THAT?
Within a few minutes of dad appearing on the scene, they were all joking. I remembered that when the stranger had been sitting, the man had done all the talking and the boys had not opened their mouths. Within minutes, the boys were mimicking the way their father held his pizza (folded) and trying to shove each other off the bench. Everything was normal again but I was disturbed.
Why didn’t I pick up on the fact that the boys didn’t feel safe? Their body language practically screamed they were nervous.
An article by Drew, Vo and Wolfe In Psychol. Science (2013), helped me to understand what happened. They reported that:
The tendency to let expectation be our guide can cause even those of us who are intelligent, experienced, and well-trained to overlook some startlingly obvious things.
Researchers have called this confirmation bias. We actively seek out and accept information that agrees with our preconceptions. The stranger’s shirt looked like my husband’s so he must’ve been a nice guy. Our brains will discount information that does not match up with our beliefs therefore I didn’t register their unease until after the stranger was gone.
Have you ever had any thing like this happen to you? There’s a rather famous experiment called The Monkey Business Illusion. You can find it here. You might want to try to test your own powers of observation.
And here’s a study of what happened when they hid the image of a gorilla in a CT scan. 83% of the radiologist missed seeing it!
Studies on are brain show that often, we see what we expect to see, despite the evidence around us. In other words, believing is seeing, instead of the reverse.