Saturday, July 16, 2011

Honest Mistakes


Greetings All This morning, I heard a summary of a study re: perception.Students (college, I believe) were asked to follow a jogger and count how manytimes he touched his hat. This was done to simulate a police officer followinga criminal and focusing on whether a weapon was in hand or evidence discarded.The jogger and student ran past a loud fight between three people near theirpath. Even in daylight, FIFTY PERCENT of the students did not notice the fightin any way. Furthermore, many (most?) of that 50% were CERTAIN there was not a fight they ran past. Bear with me, I will get to the frontiers of ID part. Another study that I read some time ago -- and I might get somedetails wrong, but the message is well ingrained – looked at the effect ofclothing on racial identification (again, this was done with regards to policework). A white man was dressed to fit the stereotype of an inner city African-American male. The man walked past the test observers. SKIN COLOR WASNEVER VISIBLE. A large percentage ofobservers stated with certainty that they saw a black man, and that they actually sawthe skin color. So, if one ties these two studies together (and I’ve seenother studies similar to the second one regarding recognition of other people) acouple interesting conclusions arise: As birders, we probably only accurately note those marksthat we truly focus on. If we have prior knowledge of/experience with thespecies, the other details may well be filled in automatically by our brainsbased on what we expect to see, which may not necessarily match reality. Far worse, our brains may notrecognize, NOR EVEN BE CAPABLE OF recognizing that those other details werefilled in, not actually observed. Therefore, totally honest reports may well beinaccurate, even though the observer is “certain” that particular details werepresent. When documenting rarities, especially those seen relatively briefly,it might be worth stressing which marks were specifically focused on. We probably use context much more often than we are willingto admit. In Colorado, when driving through a town on the eastern plains, aChaetura swift flies by and most observers (myself included) would enter it asa Chimney Swift. In reality, we probably have not seen enough to make thischallenging ID with certainty. Since moving to Colorado, my brain is in “thisis where I live mode,” which for the prior 20 years was Washington. Alas, I nowlive in Colorado. During the first couple months here, this subconscious effectcaused me to initially misidentifying birds. Now, with context better ingrained, those types of errors are much less frequent (the rumors that I called a duck an alcid are ALL LIES I tell you :o) In any case, being aware of these factors may help us avoidmisidentifications, and I hope some of this information is new and interestingto Frontiers subscribers. Best Wishes Steven Mlodinow

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