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  • Writer's pictureLouise Carnachan

Missing the Obvious

We’d been at it for an hour when I, for the second time, handed the banker a document I’d received in the mail. She gave it a more critical read and said, “This is the problem. You have to fill out the New Jersey L8 tax form.” I was embarrassed. I’d had the answer in my hand, it was literally sent to me, and I’d read it. To be fair, she missed it too. What caused us, two people of at least average intelligence, to fail to comprehend what was right in front of us? A combination of perceptual blindness with a good dose of confirmation bias.

Perceptual blindness is caused by the unexpected. As the co-owner of my father’s checking account in California, I’d had no problem closing his account after he passed. As co-owner of my mother’s account in New Jersey, I assumed the same would be true. That this wasn’t the case was so surprising that I just didn’t get it even though the words were right there on the page. I’d read for evidence to support my existing beliefs (aka confirmation bias) and was confused when I didn’t see it. Ergo, my trip to the local branch of the bank. As for the banker, she had no idea states differed because she’d never seen anything like this before.

I’ve been pondering this issue of failing to see that which we don’t expect to see. How often do our eyes skip past words because of our preconceived notions of what we should be reading? I’m sure the same phenomenon applies to hearing (or not) information even when it’s clearly stated. To go a step further, consider a situation where someone’s behavior is incongruent with their typical demeanor. Is it possible to literally not see it? Well, the eyes would take in the information but it’s the brain that makes meaning. Might cognitive dissonance dismiss the aberrant actions as irrelevant before it had the chance to register as a conscious thought? Could this be why we have so many versions of “facts,” with each individual adamant about the veracity of their own perceptions? Because our sensing apparatus sends signals to the brain for interpretation, it seems highly likely.

The brain likes predictability, that’s why habits work so well for us. It can fill in the blanks with historical information and save attention for the unique or the dangerous. Deviations from the norm can be missed altogether. How many times have I been none the wiser about my misperception? The problem with lost opportunity is I have no idea of what I unintentionally ignored.

I don’t know of any sure fire fixes for this problem. Below are some strategies I’ve found useful, but they’re not fool proof.

  • If you’re tired or upset, that can lead to faulty reading comprehension. Put it aside and read it later.

  • When the language contains unfamiliar terms (i.e., legalese or jargon) it’s easy to skip over words rather than puzzle them out or look them up—especially if you think they don’t apply to you. That was my problem with my mother’s checking account. As for the banker, on the second read she slowed down enough to make sense of the legalese.

  • If you wrote it, it’s unlikely you can proof it well.

  • Rather than listening by rote and being a bit lazy, go ahead and ask the question if you don’t understand something rather than letting it slide by.

  • If you’re upset, you probably aren’t listening with accuracy. You may need to defer the conversation to a different time. Or repeat back what you thought you heard to allow the opportunity for correction.

  • If you receive a startled or unexpected reaction as a result of something you said, ask what’s up. It may be they didn’t hear you correctly or you may have responded to a presumption, not what was actually said.

  • If you enter into a situation expecting a certain outcome, be aware that this is exactly when you’re in most danger of misperception.

It’s somewhat daunting to think of what we miss because of the brain’s affinity for accustomed patterns. Even with coping mechanisms at the ready, we may fail to employ them because we’re oblivious to the potential for misunderstanding. No one is immune. All we can do is to strive for anticipatory awareness and attempt to catch misperceptions in the moment—and be less judgmental of others when it happens to them.

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