Right Before Your Eyes: On Cognitive Fluency, Graphical Literacy, And Illusion

Optical illusions make ideal teaching tools in negotiation and conflict resolution training. They serve as humbling reminders of the unreliability of our senses and the conclusions we draw from the data we perceive. One of my favorite illusions is “Shepard’s Turning the Tables“, which you can view at the web site of Professor Michael Bach of Universitäts-Augenklinik, Freiburg, Germany.

This illusion depicts two tables standing near each other. The tables appear to be of different sizes, one apparently longer and narrower than the other. When you click “Run”, one table top lifts and floats, coming to rest on top of the second table, allowing you to see that the surface areas of the tables are in fact identical and match perfectly. You can reset and replay the illusion again and again.

Amazingly, despite knowing the truth about the dimensions of the table tops, your eyes still see differing sizes and shapes. I invite you to see for yourself. (I must caution those of you whose time is limited: visiting Professor Bach’s site, a collection of 86 jaw-dropping illusions, for only a minute is simply not possible. You’ll find yourself irresistibly drawn from one illusion to the next.)

For those of you interested in influences on perception and cognition, I recommend one article and two videos, all thought-provoking (for those of you viewing at work, please note that a certain four-letter word appears in both videos):

Via The Boston Globe, “Easy = True: How ‘cognitive fluency’ shapes what we believe, how we invest, and who will become a supermodel“. Globe staff writer Drake Bennett describes cognitive fluency as “[o]ne of the hottest topics in psychology today”. He reports that cognitive fluency is “simply a measure of how easy it is to think about something, and it turns out that people prefer things that are easy to think about to those that are hard.” Studies suggest that factors such as rhyming words or font style and legibility of text influence the way we process information, enhancing or hampering our ability to perform tasks or make judgments.

The outstanding blog Sociological Images posted “Chart Wars: The Political Power of Data Visualization,” a presentation by political consultant Alex Lundry, which offers a salutary lesson in “graphical literacy” and warns against the ways in which depictions of visual data can mislead or distort. View it here:

From Colin Rule’s blog, “The template for every news story you’ve ever seen“. Watch in awe to see how, in Colin’s words, “a couple edits and on-the-street interviews can transform fuzzy thinking into something that seems insightful”:

                        author

Diane J. Levin

Diane Levin, J.D., is a mediator, dispute resolution trainer, negotiation coach, writer, and lawyer based in Marblehead, Massachusetts, who has instructed people from around the world in the art of talking it out. Since 1995 she has helped clients resolve disputes involving tort, employment, business, estate, family, and real property… MORE >

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