Schick and Vaughn Chapter 3

Looking for Truth in Personal Experience

This chapter describes various ways in which personal experience can be deceptive.  Much in this chapter may be familiar to you from psychology. Psychologists have compiled a large body of research showing that our minds contribute hugely to our perceptions – that there is in fact no “raw perception,” but that perception is always mediated and interpreted by the mind. As SV put it, perception is “constructive.”(34)

Rule: Just because something seems (feels, appears) real doesn’t mean that it is. (32)

The following factors contribute to perceptual construction:

  1. Wanting or even needing a particular experience. SV give the example by Gustav Jahoda on p. 33.  Think of Agent Mulder’s poster “I Want to Believe.” Another example: PK parties (40-41). Emotional factors and stress make perceptual constructions especially unreliable. Stresses might be relatively minor (being hungry or tired), or quite major (receiving a diagnosis of a terminal disease).

  2. Perceptual constancies: “our tendency to have certain perceptual experiences even in the absence of relevant input from our senses.”(34) Examples: color constancy, size constancy. (Interestingly, these perceptual constancies are learned.)

  3. Expectation: e.g., people told they will experience a certain stimulus often experience it even if it hasn’t been given (36f.).

  4. Looking for clarity in vagueness: we automatically order our perception. We “see as”: e.g., seeing a cloud as a shape, seeing the “face” on Mars, or the Martian “canals,” or the face of Jesus in a tortilla. We read the vague predictions of “prophets” (such as Nostradamus) and astrologers as meaningful and precisely descriptive of our current lives and events.(59-61)

  5. Examples that combine all the above: the Blondlot case, supposed UFO sightings (37-45)

Furthermore, memory is also constructed, or “re-constructed.” Expectations, beliefs, emotions, and perceptual constancies all contribute to inaccurate reconstructions and interpretations. Example: the classic experiment involving the film of the black man and the white man, with the white man holding a razor. (47) Another classic experiment: students rate the identical paper higher when they believe the author is male, lower when they believe the author is female.

Our long-term memories can be significantly altered (and falsified) by subsequent suggestions that appear to provide new and relevant information. Example: recovered memory syndrome (48-49).

Other well-documented psychological phenomena include:

  1. Cryptomnesia: “hidden memory.” Sometimes we get an idea that strikes us as new and original, and we forget that it’s really a memory of something we learned in the past. Examples: the Bridey Murphy case, George Harrison and “My Sweet Lord.”

  2. Selective memory: many examples. Remembering evidence for a claim and forgetting all the evidence against it. “Dad, you never give me any money!” Remembering only the dreams that “come true” – forgetting that most dreams don’t – and then inferring precognition.

  3. Selective attention and selective validation: e.g., preferring eye data over ear data (a natural tendency). The Lunar effect (56) and the Forer effect (56) illustrate selective validation.

  4. Misjudging probabilities: e.g., the gambler’s fallacy, or so-called “incredible” coincidences (52-53). People often fail to realize that “incredible coincidences are common and must occur.” (53) For example, given the very large numbers of dreams we have, it would be incredible if some of our dreams didn’t come true; i.e., of course some dreams come true, but that doesn’t prove that we learn the future through dreams. Given the millions of things I think about, it’s not at all incredible that I might think about a person I haven’t seen in years, and then immediately run into that person, or see that person’s obituary. Given facts about the dispersion of molecules in the atmosphere, it is not incredible that any deep breath has a 99% probability of containing a molecule of Julius Caesar’s dying breath.

Here's the advantage of science: “scientific work is largely the business of not taking any one person’s word for it.” (62) Science tries to remove the potential errors of purely subjective personal experience, replacing subjective data with intersubjective data.


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