Commentary Magazine


Politics, Perceptions, and Optical Illusions

One of the things that has long intrigued me is how people of different political and ideological attitudes can look at the same set of facts and interpret them in entirely different ways.

For example, it’s no secret to readers of this site that I’m a conservative who views a whole range of issues–the size and reach of government, taxes, entitlement programs, education, immigration, health care, abortion, America’s role in world affairs, and so forth–in a particular way. One of my long-time friends, a man who has played a significant role in my Christian faith, is a liberal who disagrees with me on virtually everything having to do with politics. He’s smart, informed, and has integrity. We’ve had good, rich conversations over the years. Yet there’s very little common political ground we share.

We simply look at the same issues, the same events, in a fundamentally different way.

I thought about my friend while reading Jesse Norman’s outstanding biography Edmund Burke: The First Conservative. In the second half of the book, devoted to Burke’s political philosophy, Norman invokes the Muller-Lyer illusion, a benchmark of human visual perception in which two lines of the same length appear to be of different lengths, based on whether the fins of an arrow are facing inward or outward.

Now there are different theories as to what explains variations in perception, but what we do know is that different cultures perceive the illustrations in substantially different ways. For example, as Norman explains, Europeans and Americans are much more likely to believe the shaft of one arrow is longer (by as much as 20 percent) than the shaft of another. The San foragers of the Kalahari desert, on the other hand, aren’t susceptible to the illusion; for them, the lines (correctly) look the same length. One possible explanation for this is that the more one lives in a “carpentered world,” one with straight lines, right angles, and square corners, the more likely one is to be fooled.

Jesse Norman writes, “Even humans’ visual perceptions appear to be partly culturally determined. People from other cultures literally see things differently.” Norman goes on to write something Burke understood as well as anyone ever has: “culture matters.”

Now, this doesn’t mean that culture is all that matters. Or that all perceptions are equally valid or equally right. Or that there is no objective truth. Or that there’s not a basic core to human nature or common attitudes that are shared across nearly all cultures.

But there is a useful analogy that can be drawn from this optical illusion for our understanding of political debates. American liberals and conservatives live in the same country, but they often perceive things in fundamentally different ways. We mistakenly believe that those we disagree with politically have the same interpretive lens we do. We see something happening and consider it unfair or unjust. And because we assume others see the same thing we do, we’re agitated, even angered, because they draw different conclusions from ours. That is to say, we assume others see the same injustice we do and therefore ought to react the same way we do. If not, the explanation must be indifference, or worse. To embrace a different view than ours is therefore not just an analytical mistake; it’s a moral failure. Which explains why political debates so often degenerate into ad hominem attacks.

What often happens, in fact, is that we view the same event from alternate angles. The light refracts differently for those on the left, in the middle, and on the right. One person sees the issue of gay marriage as a matter of equality and human dignity; another person sees it as a matter of teleology, the complementarity of the sexes, and the welfare of a vital institution. A person on the right might have viewed Bill Clinton’s actions in the aftermath of his affair with Monica Lewinsky as a crime that deserved impeachment and conviction; a person on the left might have believed it was an example of a right-wing conspiracy run amok which resulted in prosecutorial overreach.

Another concrete example is welfare reform in the mid-1990s. Conservatives favored it because they believed it would help end a pernicious culture of dependency; liberals opposed it because they thought it would do terrible harm to poor children. If as a liberal you assumed conservatives perceived things as you do–if you assumed they knew, deep in their hearts, that millions of children would join the ranks of the homeless if welfare reform were passed into law but still didn’t care–it would be easy to think conservatives were cruel. Easy and unfair. This kind of thing happens on both sides.

Which brings me back to my friend. I’m convinced he’s wrong and that I have the better arguments. But I have no doubt that he’s a person who cares about justice and the good of society. Yet for a host of complicated reasons, we simply view the (political) world in vastly different ways. We’ve had some intense disagreements over the years, but our friendship has never frayed. Why? Because we both accept that we’re seeing the same set of facts but almost instantaneously we begin to interpret them in very different ways. Which leads me to a couple of conclusions.

The first is that I’d be wise to more often–not always, but more often–give the benefit of the doubt to others as I do to my friend. The second is that some of our most important political work is cultural in nature, by which I mean shaping our deepest perceptions and worldviews. Different moral and philosophical presuppositions lead to very different views on public policy matters. We tend to have intense debates about the latter without properly taking into account the former. We might want to try it the other way around, if only to clarify our differences and upgrade our public debates. But of course all of this needs to be done in a responsible way, with a touch of grace and propriety. Otherwise we could all end up sounding like this.

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