Thursday, February 19, 2009

Problems of perception and unseen bias

We moved yesterday - chaos. I will be off-line from the home office until at least next Tuesday, so this is going to really slow me down.

In my train reading I have now finished Peter Thompson's Pacific Fury: how Australia and her allies defeated the Japanese scourge.

As I said in my first comment, I found it a good read, although I do think that there is an anti-British bias. He gives a fair serve to perceived incompetence and bias of all types. It's just that he has a tendency to add the word British or English before a name case, leave the equivalent descriptor out in the case of other nationalities.

Oddly, this fits with my next train reading, Malcolm Gladwell's Blink (Penguin 2006) because this deals in part with the way prejudices influence perception.

The core of Gladwell's book deals with the way humans make instantaneous judgements, quick judgements based on limited information.

These judgements can be remarkably accurate. Gladwell attempts to explain why. Importantly, he also explains why they can be disastrously wrong.

Some of his arguments link to things that I have written about not just on this blog, but also in my management writings.

I noticed what I saw as Thompson's bias, but most Australians would not because this type of bias has been widely expressed to the point that it has become perceived wisdom.

My purpose here is not to attack Thompson's position in any rigorous way. I am simply using it as an example of the way in which perceptions affect thinking.

Of course we all know this at an intellectual level. However, it is very hard for us to recognise the actual effects on our own thinking and judgements.

Often when I write on these issues, my thoughts are set in the context of a different argument.

For example, I spoke of mirroring - the way in which our behaviour and ideas come to reflect and respond to the perceptions and action of others in relation to ourselves - in the context of the Australian Aborigines' perceptions of themselves. However, this is but one example of a broader phenomenon.

Perhaps more on this later.


Neil said...

Just operating from the things my Air Force/Army relatives would say in the 50s, and the general talk -- and they were all UAP/Liberal types -- there does seem to have been bitterness about Singapore and Churchill, alongside talk of England, George VI and the Blitz. Considerable deprecation of "the Yanks" too.

Haven't read the book though...

Jim Belshaw said...

There was some bitterness and justly so. But the real problem lay in failures of previous policy, including in Australia. Then the problems of infighting and incompetence that emerged included Australian, British and US personnel.

I am not in a position to comment on the detail of much of Thompson's writing outside those areas where I have direct knowledge. Putting aside his views on the Brittish, he paints a scarifying universal picture of official incompetence and national myopia.