Black and white views are hard-wired into our brains

04 February 2015

Seeing arguments in black and white is often viewed as a criticism, but scientists have found that we are actually programmed to see only one perspective at a time.

Professor Nick Chater revealed on BBC Radio 4’s The Human Zoo this week how our brain can only see one side of an argument at a time and finds it almost impossible to hold the two perspectives together.

The problem is illustrated by the rabbit-duck drawing created by psychologist Joseph Jastrow in 1899 and made famous by philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. People see either the duck or the rabbit, but can’t see both at the same time. 

“You see the duck or rabbit and then quite suddenly flip to the other,” said Professor Chater, , who is part of the Behavioural Science Group at Warwick Business School. “You see one or the other, never both. And the way we perceive is strongly connected to how we think about more abstract issues, even politics.


What do you see: the duck-rabbit picture created by psychologist Joseph Jastrow reveals our 'black-and-white' perception


Our brain view of the world is ‘sticky’ - once we have a certain perspective, we tend to fit new information into that viewpoint. And this is one reason why we find it hard to change our minds. Think about arguments over climate change; people assume recent weather data show it is real; other people can interpret the same information as showing that it is not."

An experiment using moving dots illustrates the problem our brain has in changing its mind. Participants were asked to say which way the dots were moving on the computer screen, but on some of the trials the dots moved precisely halfway between the points on the first frame, so they could be moving either way. But the results showed that people said they were moving whatever way the trial before was moving. The ambiguous moving dots are seen as flowing ‘left,’ if the previous dot patterns were moving left; the very same dots are seen as flowing ‘right,’ if the previous dot patterns were moving right.

“Our brain can’t stop going with the flow that has gone before,” said Professor Chater . “And this effect happens not just in our perception, but in our attitudes, beliefs and choices. The way you see the world locks you in a certain viewpoint.

“The human brain is constantly trying to impose a pattern on the world and it looks to interpret everything to fit in with that pattern as we can only do one perspective at a time, it is either black or white, never both.” 

To listen to the The Human Zoo click here.

To take part in The Human Zoo's online experiment click here.

Professor Nick Chater teaches Behavioural Sciences for the Manager on the Warwick Executive MBA and Principles of Cognition on the suite of MSc Business courses. He also teaches Emotions in Business on Warwick Business School's Undergraduate courses.

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