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Do You Notice Every Relevant Thing You See?

When your expectations get in the way, you may not notice what’s right in front of you.

There’s been enough research done about cognitive biases that by now we all know we have them, even if we don’t pay them much mind on a daily basis. In fact, the Cognitive Bias Codex — which is quite fascinating and worth taking a look at — details over 180 of these patterns.

Lost in Translation

I had my own funny experience of cognitive bias the other day. I was meeting with a colleague in her home office. She went to the kitchen to get something to drink, and came back with one of the reusable carbonating bottles from her sparkling water maker.

“You know how to read Hebrew, don’t you?” she asked, and handed me the bottle, which had mice type in a Hebrew font all around the bottom of the bottle. Apparently, these bottles are good for roughly three years from manufacture; the ones my colleague had bought must have been meant for the Israeli market. Hence, the Hebrew text at the bottom, and she wanted to check on the expiration date.

“I can decode it,” I said. “I can pronounce the words, but I probably can’t translate it.” I picked up the bottle a little nervously, concerned that I wouldn’t be able to identify which words referred to expiration. But as I slowly turned the bottle in my hands, scanning the Hebrew letters for words I recognized, I started laughing.

There at the end of the text were four distinct numerals, immediately recognizable as 2021 — in any language. “Oh! I see,” I told her. “The bottle is good till 2021.” Her eyes lit up at my ostensible skill — and then I pointed out the date, and she started laughing too.

What Obscures Our View

My colleague is as smart as a whip and as sharp as a tack, but as soon as she recognized the font as being in a language she didn’t know, she had given up trying to read it, even though she could have found the answer for herself. “Now that’s a blog!” she said.

We’re as likely to see what we expect to see as we are to see what’s actually there in front of us. That’s how we miss typos, for example. Or how we may not see the keys on the desk when we’re rushing around to leave. Or how we might not notice when a good performer messes up a little, although we notice every single mistake that gets made by a less successful employee.

There’s no fully foolproof solution — we have to wrestle with these biases all the time. All I can offer is the standard list of advice: be mindful and stay in the present moment; avoid multitasking; don’t just skim when you read; and get plenty of sleep to give all your senses the best shot at focus. And make sure you actually look at whatever it is you’re looking at! That’s a skill that’ll be reusable forever.

Onward and upward,


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