Our Flawed Perception: The Challenge of Judging People
In Chapter Three of Moby Dick, Ishmael, arrives to New Bedford, Massachusetts before he heads to Nantucket to board a whaling ship. It is a dark and stormy night. He is in a strange town with nowhere to sleep, so he walks through the streets, searching for a place to spend the night. At the Spouter‐Inn, he asks the innkeeper if there are any spare rooms, and the innkeeper says, "You don't have any objections to sharing a harpooner's blanket, do you? If you are going whaling, you need to get used to that sort of thing" (15).
Ishmael is not happy to have to share a room with someone, but he has no other place to sleep, so he agrees to a roommate whom he has never seen before.
At supper that night in the inn, Ishmael hears that this harpooner with whom he will share a room is "dark‐complexioned." And he becomes suspicious and more and more nervous as the night goes on. Ishmael works himself into such a frenzy, that again he seeks the innkeeper to find out what sort of chap the harpooner is. After all, Ishmael is in a strange inn, in a strange town, and he wants to know the person with whom he is sharing a blanket.
It turns out that Ishmael's future roommate is a cannibal from the South Seas. In the scene where they come face to face, Ishmael is horrified and terrified by the person he sees.
However, in a short period of time, Ishmael begins to revise his perception. He says, "I stood looking at him a moment. For all his tattooings, he was on the whole a clean and comely looking cannibal (26)...savage though he was, and hideously marred about the face—at least to my taste—his countenance yet had a something in it which was by no means disagreeable. You cannot hide the soul. Through all his unearthly tattooings, I thought I saw the traces of a simple honest heart" (55).
What changes Ishmael's perception of his roommate named Queequeg? What prompts him to revise his initial prejudice?
The Talmud says, "We do not see things as they are; we see things as we are." This statement has pretty amazing implications when we judge people. How do we bridge truth and human perception especially when we make judgments of people based on superficial information? Is it even possible to unite human perception and an ultimate, objective truth?
Of our two most prominent senses, our vision and our hearing, vision may be the most influential to our way of thinking, and it can also lead to erroneous thinking. We naturally make assumptions about people based on how they look or what they are wearing. This flawed approach can have grave consequences on our daily lives as well as in a court of law. About 75% of court cases where people are wrongly convicted the principal cause is faulty eyewitness testimony.
For example, in 1984 Jennifer Thompson, a student at Elon College in North Carolina, was assaulted in her off‐campus apartment. During the trial she pointed to a man named Ronald Cotton and said that she was 100 per cent certain that he was the intruder. Cotton spent 11 years in prison before the real rapist, Bobby Poole, was identified through DNA evidence.
Sometimes our perception of a person or event can be skewed not by visual cues but by oral cues and language. In a study by Loftus and Palmer, subjects viewed a film of a car crash. A week later when subjects were asked about the vehicles that had "smashed" into each other, they were more likely to recall having seen broken glass than subjects who were asked about the cars "hitting" each other. The use of the word "smash" versus "hit" influenced the memory of what people had seen. There was no broken glass at the scene.
Additionally, contrary to what we might imagine, our memories do not operate like video cameras. Most neuroscientists believe that every time we recall an event, we alter our memory traces of it. A good friend of mine who is about my age has a funny saying about this aspect of memory. He says, "The older I get, the stronger I was," suggesting that
he increasingly remembers himself as being stronger than he actually was.
Not only can our thinking and judgment be flawed by inaccurate assumptions and incomplete information, our memory of people and events can further skew the truth.
These flaws in perception and memory can have amazing consequences in the conviction of criminals.
In one 2001 study of police line‐ups in real court cases, witnesses picked the wrong person about 25 % of the time. Witnesses tend to think "Which of these suspects is most similar to the suspect I remember seeing?" Given what we said about memory, this approach is problematic. People feel compelled to choose the closest match even if it is far from perfect. Also, because of our biases created by physical sight, police lineups can be very tricky especially when a witness is trying to identify someone of a different race. In these cases, witnesses are much more prone to error.
I myself know the challenge for people of one race trying to distinguish between people of another race through a student at my former school. This is a student whom my wife taught, and he was also in the same grade as my twins, so you would think he knew our family well. I was assistant headmaster at the time, and I was a visible figure on campus, yet this boy, named Shabazz Stuart, constantly got me mixed up with three other middle‐aged white men who were also on the faculty. You may imagine he was doing this on purpose, but he was not. My wife was with him when he greeted Mr. Hammond and called him Mr. Caldwell or when he addressed Mr. Speers as Mr. Schuller. Both times he was embarrassed and apologetic for the mix up, and my wife tried to offer him other clues beyond age and skin color which would help Shabazz distinguish us from each other.
So imagine if this boy had to identify one of us from a police line up! If the four of us were in a police line up and Shabazz was identifying which of us was the perpetrator of a crime, chances are he would not be able to identify the real suspect.
Obviously Mr. Schuller is a bit plumper than the rest of us, and Mr. Speers was much shorter than the rest of us, and Mr. Hammond has a pocket protector for all of his pens...
So back to the question, how can we bridge our perception with some objective, basic truth?
In Moby Dick, Herman Melville hints at ways we humans might improve our ability to perceive the world.
Melville suggests that one thing that may help us is if our eyes were positioned as a whale's eyes are. A whale's eyes are on completely opposite sides of its head, so each eye sees a completely opposite view of the universe at the same time. Imagine how perceptive we would be if we could comprehend two different prospects at the same time. While we obviously cannot reposition our eyes to be like a whale's because that would mean putting our eyes where our ears are, maybe we can work towards comprehending and embracing opposing ideas. This would certainly help as we engage in debates and need to find compromise.
Melville also hints that with our eyes closed we might see a bit better than when they are open. In the scene where Ishmael and Queequeg have become bosom friends and the best roommates, Ishmael comes to recognize that in some ways he can see things better with his eyes closed. As he lies in bed thinking about how significantly his feelings towards Queequeg have changed, Ishmael reflects: "Be it said that though I had felt such a strong repugnance to his smoking his tomahawk pipe in the bed the night before, yet see how elastic our stiff prejudices grow when love once comes to bend them...(60)"
The implication of this scene from Chapter 10 called "A Bosom Friend" is that we have so many biases to people's physical appearances that we are prone to jump to conclusions and get stuck in fixed perceptions that may not tell the whole story about the actual character, heart or soul of the person. In fact, we might all understand each other a bit better if we did not see what each other looked like. At the end of the scene Melville writes: "no man can ever feel his identity aright except his eyes be closed" (60).
Melville, Herman. Moby‐Dick. New York: Penguin Books, 1851.
Lilienfeld, Scott O., and Byron, Robert. "Your Brain on Trial." Scientific American Mind January/February 2013