Viewing Others Through Our Glasses

Viewing Others Through Our Glasses

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

We see others through the glasses we wear. I will illustrate this point by the story "A traveler and the wise man."

A traveler has been walking for several days in a lonely land, without seeing a sign of civilization. He comes up on a hill, looks down and sees signs of a township down below. But, he is not sure if it would be worth his while to walk all the way, just to visit the township. As he is pondering the question, a wise man, with a long gray beard and hair flowing down his shoulders, appears from nowhere. The traveler approaches the wise man and inquires about the inhabitants of the town at the bottom of the hill: "What kind of people live there? Are they nice and friendly?"

The wise man gazes intently at the traveler and asks, "Tell me about the place from which you come. What kind of people live there?" The traveler says, "Oh! Don't even remind me of that. My hometown is full of dreadful people." The wise man says, "It's no different here. You will find the same kind of people in the village below."

Days go by. Another traveler arrives at the same hill and spots the village down below. Again the wise man materializes out of the thin air. The same conversation takes place, but the second traveler says that his hometown is full of wonderful people. The wise man responds, "You will find the same kind of people in the village below."

The assistant of the wise man, who heard both conversations, is puzzled by the two contrasting explanations of the village below. He asks in an accusatory tone, "You lied to one of them, didn't you?" The wise man says, "I didn't lie to either of them. Pay attention to what I told them. I didn't say the village is full of wonderful people or dreadful people. I said "You will find the same kind of people when you go there."

What will you find in the people you meet? The answer depends on what expectations you hold. Your expectations depend on what you know about yourself and others. That is exactly what you'll find there. The external world is largely determined by our internal world. This means that the reality of the outside world is largely shaped by our own thoughts, fears, hopes and wishes. This secret is only discovered by a few. Others keep blaming outer circumstances for the bad people and the things they encounter in their lives.

To a large extent, we see things as we are, not as things are. This is the principle behind self-fulfilling prophecy. You go for a job interview with a preconceived notion that they have already decided who they are going to hire; "I am just being called to go through the motions so they can look fair." With that attitude you will come across to the potential employer as an unmotivated or unfriendly person. Naturally, they will not select you. You can then tell yourself, "I knew it. I saw right through it."

In the psychological literature, self-fulfilling prophecy is referred to as "confirmatory bias." Confirmatory bias is a tendency to search for evidence that supports our assumptions. No pleasure is greater than that of proving yourself right. People, after all, wreck their marriages just win an argument. So, many spouses win battles, but lose the war. Curiously, I don't know any man or woman who, at the end of a fierce argument, says to his or her partner, "You are so right. I am glad to concede this argument to you." But, I digress. Back to the confirmatory bias.

As we look for evidence to support our assumptions, we also tend to ignore evidence that contradicts them. This, in psychology literature, is referred to as the law of "cognitive dissonance." Simply put, it means that we tend to discard the contradictory evidence. When others begin to turn our world upside down, by opposing facts and arguments, don't we feel like screaming at them "Don't confuse me with the facts?"

No wonder it is so difficult to discover anything new. We are too busy trying to confirm what we already know and believe, and discard what doesn't support our beliefs and assumptions.

French mathematician Claude Bernard once said, "Those who have an excessive faith in their ideas are not well-fitted to make discoveries." How very true!

Discoveries, inventions and creative ideas are only possible by over-riding familiar views and perspectives. When we look at a problem from a new angle, we become hopeful and optimistic. Look at how Rabbi Joshua Liebman views death: "I often feel that death is not the enemy of life, but its friend. For it is the knowledge that our years are limited which makes them so precious."

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Copyright 2003, Mind Publications 
Posted July 2003


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