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When Being Smart Isn’t Enough: Shephard’s Tabletop Illusion - Are These Tabletops Identical?

It is very difficult to convince ourselves that our intuitive experience is incorrect, even when confronted with strong evidence to the contrary.

Are these tabletops (above) identical?

Of course not, one is much more narrow than the other - right?

Well, actually, the tabletops are identical.

Don’t believe me? Then watch the 21-second (YouTube) video above.

So, now that you’ve seen the video, they look identical, right? As it turns out, no, they don’t.

This illusion was first presented by the US psychologist Roger Newland Shepard (born 1929) in his book Mind Sights: Original Visual Illusions, Ambiguities, and Other Anomalies (1990, p. 48).

In his book, Roger Shephard notes that an intellectual understanding that the two table tops are identical in size and shape does not help you see them that way.

“. . . any knowledge or understanding of the illusion we may gain at the intellectual level remains virtually powerless to diminish the magnitude of the illusion.” - Roger Shepard, Mind Sights, p 128

Bob Collins, CFPIM, CIRM, CSCP

“Balance your opinion with various viewpoints, and purposely search for information that you don’t agree with”Bob Collins, CFPIM, CIRM, CSCP, Senior Director of Professional Development at APICS, the Association for Operations Management

Why does this illusion fool you? We are built for a three-dimensional world. We have no experience in anything but a 3-D world. When we see the two tabletops, we automatically convert the 2-D image on the page to a 3-D interpretation of the tabletop shapes as they must be in the natural world.

And we accept this illusion unquestioningly. So much so that we can never see the tabletops as identical, even when, intellectually, we know that they are the same.

Cognitive biases, which come from our unconscious, are just as impossible to see while they are in action as it is for you to see these tabletops as being identical, even after it has been objectively shown to you.

It is very difficult to convince ourselves that our intuitive experience is incorrect, even when confronted with strong evidence to the contrary.

Let’s take a quick look at one of the most devious biases that we have. It is the Confirmation bias.

We want to be right about how we see the world, so we are careful to base our opinions on years of objective analysis - right?

Well, no. It turns out that our opinions are a collection of information that we choose to pay attention to.

Confirmation bias causes us to seek out information that conforms to our current beliefs and discounts everything else. If you believe that a new product line that you are considering will be a great success, then you will tend to look for data that agrees with this assessment and will discount or deny data that is not consistent with that point of view.

Another example is only going to news sources that support your political beliefs. Do you follow Fox-TV or a CNN?

The reinforcement we get from “being right,” (remember the activation of the brain’s reward circuitry I mentioned in my last blog?), motivates us to seek out situations in which we feel we are right.

More importantly, it motivates us to not seek out information suggesting that we might be wrong, and even ignore uncomfortable information right in front of us.

I’m sure that you have seen, as I have, two people with diametrically opposing views watch the same political debate and declare, when it was done, that their candidate had won the debate.

So, how do we combat Confirmation bias? We purposely broaden our sources of information and be mindful about the information that we take in. Balance your opinion with various viewpoints. Purposely search for information that you don’t agree with.

You can tell how well you do this by checking your Favorites or Bookmark lists in your browser. By the way, do the tabletops look identical yet?

Company Spotlight: Google

Google has publically admitted that when it comes to diversity, it could do better.

In May, 2014, Google went public with some dismal diversity numbers, admitting that 70 percent of its 56,000 employees were men, only 3 percent were Latino, and only 2 percent were African American. And in 2013, only three of its 36 executives were women (Guynn, 2015 and Manjoo, 2014).

Google blamed the lack of diversity, in part, on unconscious bias and announced a “bias-busting” initiative. The initiative includes workshops and hands-on sessions designed to help employees identify and address their unconscious biases.

So far, about 2,000 Google employees have participated in the workshops, and more than half of all employees have also watched a 90-minute seminar that was taped and made available on YouTube (Guynn, 2015).

Although the program is still fairly young, Google executives have reported some progress. When a new building was opened at Google’s California headquarters, employees were quick to notice - and point out - that most of the conference rooms were named after men.

Google promptly renamed several of the rooms for historically important women (Buckley, 2014). And, says Jason Buberel, a product manager who trains employees in spotting unconscious bias, the training has made employees more comfortable in recognizing unconscious bias and in calling out themselves and others for it.

Source: Guynn, 2015

Download the White Paper: The Real Effects of Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

Source: Bob Collins APICS Blog


Article Topics
Videos   Supply Chain   Leadership   Professional Development   All topics


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