Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The F Card, Lions, and the nature of Truth

I’ve always considered ‘the truth’ to be a slippery customer. Whatever I believe becomes the truth, surely, at least for me, which sort of implies that everyone else with a different version of ‘the truth’ is wrong. Their truth is flawed somehow, less valid than mine.

Much religious bigotry was – still is – based on this notion that one set of beliefs trumps another and in some parts of the world people can still die for their faith. Of course, those doing the dying will usually be the weak and powerless, stark proof that human nature can be brutal to say the least.

For some people, political conviction is equally powerful. Witness the violent demonstrations to be seen with alarming regularity throughout much of the so-called civilized world.

But most of us don’t go to those sorts of extremes, thank goodness, though we all construct our own, personal version of the truth. We can’t help it, it’s the way we’re wired. Have you ever found yourself discussing something with other perfectly nice and sensible folk but been unable to reach agreement? What is it that the other person sees and I don’t? Or why is it they seem completely unable to grasp what seems so plain to me?

In a previous life I had the privilege to meet a really nice man called Lou Tice. Lou died a few years ago but he lived in Seattle and started his career teaching high school. He was also a football coach and became highly respected for his work in positive psychology, or put more plainly, being your very best self. He wrote several books on the subject, and developed a personal coaching programme called Investing in Excellence.

I was really interested in all of this and ran Investing in Excellence programmes for several years. It was all about boosting self esteem, helping people to recognize their best self and be it.

One little party trick I was especially fond of involved showing participants a small card with a short sentence printed on it, then asking them to tell me how many Fs were on the card. Responses typically varied from 2 to 6 (the correct answer was 6). In a room full of twenty or so people, all perfectly well able to read, they could all look at the same thing and come up with three or four versions of 'the truth'. Some simply saw more Fs than others.

The psychological explanation behind all of this concerns scotomas or blind spots. We see what we expect to see and block out information which our brains think is irrelevant or superfluous in order to concentrate on what matters. Generally, it's a useful human trait but sometimes we do chuck out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak, and miss something vital.

Here's how Lou himself described it:

Do you know what scotomas are? Everyone has them and they can keep you from seeing the opportunities all around you.
So what, exactly, is a scotoma? It's what doctors call the defect that blocks sight in one part of our visual field. It's also a term I use to describe our occasional failure to see what's right in front of us because we build our own scotoma, or mental blind spot, to it.
You see for the most part, we see what we expect to see or what we look for, not what is really there. What we expect to see is determined by our beliefs about reality.

As an author, these days I sometimes read reviews (unwise, I know, but I'm a masochist) and I wonder about blind spots. I'm convinced readers, whether they leave reviews or not, often see what they expect to see or what they look for rather than what's really there. In particular I do a double take when a reviewer points out something in one of my books that I didn't know I'd written and hadn't intentionally created. And like most of usd I allow myself a bit of a growl when they steadfastly fail to grasp what I was trying to get across, but of course that's my cue to arrange the Fs a bit better next time.


  1. I guess we have to realize that what a reader gets out of our writing is heavily dependent on that reader's existing mindset, and there's nothing we can do about that. We may hope to influence that mindset, but we can't know much abut the one they come in with. Or maybe we sometimes can, and pander to it for the sake of sales, which is okay. If we don't manage to sell enough of our work it's hard to sneak that mindset-changing bit in there from time to time.

  2. The F-card business is a great example of how we see through a filter of our own making. Or is it a filter that's been set up for us? Either way, a great example.

    Do you remember the F-full sentence?

  3. Sometimes my jaw drops when I find out what somebody saw in one of my books.

    But then, I am sure I have my own blind spots.


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