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Are You Right? What Makes You So Sure?

We all like to think that we are right. And we will often go to great lengths to persuade others that our view is the right view. But what Beau Lotto reveals in his powerful TEDTalk is that our reality is merely a perception and, "the light that falls on your eye is meaningless."
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Watch Beau Lotto's talk above on optical illusions and how information can differ depending on perception.

We all like to think that we are right. And we will often go to great lengths to persuade others that our view is the right view. But what Beau Lotto reveals in his powerful TEDTalk on optical illusions is that the reality is very different. He shows that our reality is merely a perception and, as Beau puts it, "the light that falls on your eye is meaningless". Or in other words what we see is merely our perception of reality. What's interesting is not just the way in which our mind can be tricked by these playful optical illusions but also how this affects our day-to-day decisions, our behavior and the world we live in.

Suppose that you were given a creative task to complete and that the test is given to you in a red font. Now suppose that another similar task was given to you the following week but this time in a blue colored font. Would this change in color have any effect on your performance? You like to think of yourself as creative so surely you would be creative regardless of something as trivial as the color of the font?

Behind every decision is an individual, and behind every individual is a perception. A perception based on what we see and what it means to us. -- Tom Cornwall

How about another type of task -- this time one that tests your attention-to-detail. Again the first test is in a red font and the second is in a blue font. You're a meticulous person so, again, why should the color of the font make a difference to this?

It turns out that color can play a surprisingly large role in task performance. Researchers at the University of British Columbia tracked over 600 participants' performance in a range of detail-orientated and creative tasks. In the detail-orientated tasks red boosted performance by as much as 31 percent, whilst in the creative tasks blue prompted participants to produce twice as many creative outputs than under red conditions. Why? Just as Beau explores, what matters is what the light means to us. When we see red we think of warning signs or red-ink on homework, whilst when we see blue we think of the sky or the oceans -- things that mean openness and tranquility to us. These effect how we perceive and how we respond. So, as an example, if we wanted to try to boost scores in computer-based tests, why not give the tests in blue fonts when asked to answer and red fonts when checking work through?

Color is just the start of the influence that real-world illusions can have on our decisions. We all like to think that we do the right thing when we are making choices involving risk. Are we right? A lot of the time, yes -- we're still alive, aren't we? But what's interesting is how our perception of risks can deviate from the reality.

Let's try another example. You are an official in charge of public health and you're faced with an outbreak of a rare and deadly virus that affects a population of 600. You've got two options to combat the outbreak, both with consequences:

Option A: 200 people will be saved.
Option B: 33.3 percent probability that 600 will be saved and 66.6 percent probability that no on will be saved.

Which option do you choose?

Now suppose you are given two different options to choose from:

Option C: 400 people will die.
Option D: 33.3 percent probability that no-one will die and a 66.6 percent probability that 600 people will die.

Compare your two answers: did you answer option A and option D? Take a further look at the options and you will see that they all save 200 lives. Yet the majority of participants in this study by Daniel Kahneman (author of Thinking, Fast and Slow) and his colleague Amos Tversky answered A and D. Not only are these choices different but inconsistently so. Option A chooses certainty whilst D chooses to take risk. Why do we do this? What has been consistently shown is that presentation can influence perception. When facing gains we tend to be risk-averse but when facing losses we tend to be risk-seeking. Or that we like avoiding pain more than we like obtaining pleasure. Just think about this next time you watch a haircare advert that says "maintain your shiny hair" rather than "gain shiny hair". One is a loss and one is a gain but the way in which they are presented to you affects your perception and your response. Coincidence?

Aside from these examples though, reality isn't based on probabilities, it is based on perceptions of probabilities. How do we feel about the risk? Does it mean pleasure or pain? How strong is this emotional response? All of the answers to these questions affect how strongly we seek it out or how strongly we avoid it. This needn't seem abstract. It affects our purchasing decisions, our investment decisions, our friendships and our relationships.

This goes deeper than you or I though. For decades it has been assumed that decisions are rational -- that we weigh up options and make the best choice by our criteria. This is what our economic policies have been based on, what our financial system depended upon and what many of the leaders that made these decisions believed.

What Beau's talk, and the wider science of decision-making, reveals is just how wrong this view is. Because behind every decision is an individual, and behind every individual is a perception. A perception based on what we see and what it means to us. Understanding our perceptions allows us to understand our behavior and how to make better decisions.

So next time someone you're in a heated "difference of opinions" with someone, stop to consider whether you might both be right (or wrong). Could it be that both perceptions may be reality?

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