Tuesday, December 26, 2006

What is perception?

What happens in those fleeting moments when you perceive things or people or situations?

It was one of the best days of my life. I was doing my PhD, surrounded by great, incredibly intelligent, and interesting, and funny, friends; working for a whole year at UNICAMP, I had the best girlfriend ever, and my computer program was finally finished: that important paper would soon be out for publication and life coudn't be better. So after a whole day at the lab, me and my girlfriend decided to go watch some movie at the cinemas.

So my mind is going through many good things, with only one very small annoyance. Cris, my girlfriend, is taking forever to get ready. Women! Anyway, she wants to stop at her apartment, then to go to mine, before heading to the movies. Being a smart man, I say what we always do: of course. So we go and the whole ordeal takes such a loooooong, long time, at her place.

Then we go to my place. I was in a hurry, because we were late to the movie. She couldn't care less; but you know how women are. Anyway, m y perception of the situation, before going in the door, was that this was "just another regular, good, day". That perception would change in one second.

As I opened the door of my apartment, something looked strange. It was all very subtle and fast. The lights were out and the apartment was dark, but, in less than a single second, before I turned the lights on, I felt sheer fear. Someone was there, inside the apartment. This person was facing me directly. As soon as I turned the lights on, we would have to face each other. I could only hope that they would rob whatever they wanted and leave us alone. In a fraction of a second, my new perception was of the worst kind. Our lives were at stake. But, once again, that perception would change in the next second.

I turn on the lights, ready or not to deal with the situation. And there are lots of people. Not just one, but lots of them. And they scream "surprise"! Ohh yes, ohh gosh, Ok, yes, It's my birthday, and Oh god, everyone's here! So in another glance, my perception changes radically, again, to one of an unexpected surprise party. She gave the keys to someone and that explained how they were in. She took loads of time so they'd get ready. I can still remember the momentary collapse of the ideas of a robbery, and of going to the movies, vanishing away. Nothing like that was going to happen anymore. The perception now is: time to celebrate.

Everyone has been through these kinds of rapid shifts in perception. We don't control it. It happens automatically. There is nothing we can do, in fact, to control how we perceive situations given the speed with which our psychology processes situations. So what goes on in those fleeting moments when we perceive things or people or situations? What is perception, after all?

Perception is categorization. It is the automatic process of categorizing things, people, and situations.

So we have categories in our minds. These categories came from previous experience. We have a number of categories acquired through life. Let's say, at any point T in time, some person has C(T) number of acquired categories. But here's the thing: scientists have counted the number of stimulus coming from our senses at any point in time: we have 11 Million different stimulus bombarding us with data from our 5 senses. How do we go from 11.000.000 stimulus (which we have never seen combined before and will never see combined again) to a relatively small number of categories? This is what Hofstadter discovered: we have an innate ability to make categories "dance", by making analogies to previous situations. We see very different things as "the same" by analogy processes. As Hofstadter put it, the "inexact matching between incoming stimulae and previous categories is analogy-making par excellence".

Let me give an example that I find interesting. Take the iPod mp3 player--it is a hit product that "saved Apple Computer". On the day the first iPod was announced, people did not have the category "iPod" in their minds, so they had to resort to previous categories... making all kinds of analogies you can imagine. In fact, I decided to collect some analogies on the iPod, to use someday in a paper in Marketing. Here are some:

THE iPod is:
"the razor or the blade?"
"the latest educational tool"
"the villain"
"the gold standard"
"the remote [control]"
"apple of our eyes today"
"game changer"
"the network"
"undisputed king"
"lifestyle accessory of the new millennium"
The "Kleenex" of mp3 players
"the new floppy [disks]"
"the Xerox machine of consumer electronics"
the biggest rabbit in [...] Steve Jobs hat right now
the coca-cola of music players
The avenue for customers to go to Apple stores
the PDA
The most guilty
"as a mobile phone" [future prospect]
"as a canvas for expression"
"as a bootable drive"
"as a security threat"
[video iPod] "as a marketing tool"
"as a data repository"
"as a unit of measure" [in terms of money, height, and so on; e.g., how many iPods to circle the Earth?]
"as key for security"
"as a platform" [such as the Solaris platform]
"as a legislative force"
"as an Ebook"
"as a presentation device"
"as a business tool"
"as a phone phreaking device"
"as a portable DVD player"
"as a learning tool"

Crazy, right? But that's perception at it's core... understanding something in terms of other, better understood things.

Now, does this affect decision-making? Do people change their decisions because we are analogy machines? Well, think about this: if someone thinks that the iPod is the "lifestyle accessory of the new millennium" or "a canvas for expression", isn't that person more likely to make a buying decision than someone that says it is "a security threat" or a "Trojan horse"? I think so.

Politicians have, of course, known that analogies embed decisions, analogies embed responses from people. If a politician says that "Quebec will become a small boat in storming seas", they are pushing people away from the idea of Quebec independence. If they say that "Quebec did nothing to deserve life in prison", they are arguing for independence of Quebec. And so we go.

Decision-making theories that do not have analogies at their core will, quite simply, fail, at one point or other, to explain what humans do.

Seqsee diary has a great post on this, see also Hofstadter's papers here and here.

Above is the 2006 Stanford Presidential Lecture by Hofstadter in QUICKTIME format; below you can have it in REALPLAYER format). Internet explorer users may need to enable Active X.