How We Get Things Wrong

The other day I wrote some thoughts about recent accusations against Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea — see “Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Trouble.” Among other things, he is accused of inventing events recounted in his memoir. It’s got me thinking about the various ways we can unintentionally get things wrong. I can think of three ways that we can be fooled by our own minds:

1. Sight — Our eyes don’t exactly “see” everything that we see. Our eyes, nervous system, and brain take in a large volume of fragments of visual data and put together what looks like a coherent picture. But to a large degree what we see is a construct based on what we expect to see. That’s why we can be fooled by optical illusions or why eyewitnesses can swear they saw things that never really happened.

2. Our Model of the World — As we grow and learn and explore throughout life, our brain builds a mental model of the world. This mental model allows us to move around and navigate physically, and it allows us to make decisions and assumptions about what the physical world is like. But our mental model can be faulty. So we can get lost driving to a friend’s house, or we can have a wrong conception of where Afghanistan is.

3. Our Narrative of Our Life — This is where inaccurate memoirs might come from. As humans, we have a natural tendency to impose a narrative on events. But the story can become colored by the narrative we have imposed so that we fill in events that never happened. We tell the altered story to ourselves so many times, that it seems like the true version.

AB — 22 April 2011

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About quriosity

Al Bredenberg is a writer, researcher, and consultant living in Raleigh, NC.
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