Posted on
February 24, 2023

What optical illusions can tell us about our biases and heuristics

Believing we have any control over the biases and heuristics that influence our judgment does more harm than good.

This is why many argue that ‘bias education’ is a hollow pursuit. That in many cases, the awareness of biases can have an adverse effect. If someone believes their education makes them less biased, the blind spot is much stronger.

This leads us back to one of the Blueprint’s principles: We can not debias individuals, but we can adjust for biases in teams. As Olivier Sibony and Daniel Kahneman argue in their book, ‘Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgement’, There are techniques that help organizations systematically adjust for deviations in human judgment.

“Bias and noise—systematic deviation and random scatter—are different components of error.” - Daniel Kahneman & Olivier Sibony, Noise

But, as they go on to argue, these frameworks for judgment we’ve spent our lives building through experiences, shape our uniqueness. They’re the reason we disagree. They’re the reason that out of our conviction and dissent comes progress.

In order to arrive at the conclusion that this is a systemic problem, not an individual problem, we have to illustrate how, in this case, seeing is not believing.

Cognitive biases are much like optical illusions

Biases act like optical illusions. Even if we see or understand the illusion, we can’t necessarily control it.

When talking to teams about the importance of systematic approaches to combat bias, it’s helpful to walk through a few popular illusions and riddles to illustrate how these work.

Here we have a classic visual illusion that shows how our brain manipulates our perception to see depth:

Looking at the A square and the B square… are they the same color? They look completely different. One looks almost objectively darker than the other.

But when we connect the squares, the illusion becomes clear. The squares are the exact same colors.

The illusion is so obvious when we put them together, but when we still look back at the original image, we still can’t definitively say they’re different.

This is an important, often overlooked, reality of biases and heuristics. Much like visual illusions, once we ‘see’ our ‘cognitive illusions’, things aren’t suddenly clear. Much like looking back at the original image, we’re not just automatically enlightened that the colors are clearly the same.

We remain blind to these illusions.

With the shadow example, we all had the same experience - but our cognitive illusions often vary based on individual perception. They’re relative to our experiences, existing beliefs, preferences, etc…

Remember this viral picture of a dress?

People tend to see two very different colors - they describe the dress as either ‘gold and white’ or ‘black and blue’. Don’t believe it? Ask your friends!

This went viral years back because people couldn’t believe that others saw such drastically different colors. People are typically shocked that others don’t see the dress the same way they do. It feels objective.

Years later, a few different papers studied the viral phenomenon of the dress.

The explanation is not about what we see, but what we assume. Each person who looks at this image reasons their way into assumptions about the environment the dress is in. Is it in a well-lit store? Is it in a dark closet?

Once our brains pre-determine where the dress is, it signals a perception of color (either blue/black or white/gold).

“The perceived colors of the dress are due to (implicit) assumptions about the illumination. Moreover, our results provide some evidence that prior experience with disambiguated images may push observers to interpret the ambiguous original photo in one or the other way. These observations suggest that the perception of the dress colors may be modulated by biasing observers toward one or the other interpretation of the photo.”

What’s interesting about this particular phenomenon is that it’s incredibly difficult for someone to ‘unsee’ the color they see. So I see blue and black - it’s almost impossible for me to see white and gold.

These researchers found that in scenarios where they primed participants, they were able to influence what people see. In this study, showing participants altered images (that clearly pre-determined the color of the dress) prior to exposing them to the original image, modified their perspective.

This is much like how biases and ‘information cascades’ work. They are relative to our experience and unwinding the reasoning that leads to our perceptions is incredibly difficult.

By trying to change how we see the original image (knowing that it’s possible to see something completely different), we can see how strong this illusionary reasoning is - and how it’s difficult to change, even if we try.