headshot of George Dinwiddie with books he's written

iDIA Computing Newsletter

June 2023

Noticing Blind Spots

Last month I mentioned how our expectations of the world color our perceptions of it. Our brains are excellent at pattern matching, and filling in the blanks where information is missing. This ability obscures our blind spots, both literal and figurative, from our notice.

The eyes of all mammals have a literal blind spot, that you may have never noticed. Where the optic nerve enters the eyeball, the are no light-sensitive rod and cone cells. That means that this part of your eye cannot see. You can test this yourself. Look at the + sign in the image below, and then close or cover your left eye. If you move closer or further to the image, you'll find a distance where the dot on the right disappears. That's because it's in your blind spot.

I apologize for the remote image, but the capability I have to embed images in the email does not work for all email clients.

You don't notice that it's missing, because your brain fills in the missing data with what it expects. In the above case, it's simply white background, but the same thing happens with other backgrounds. Your brain interpolates the background it expects.

I apologize for the remote image, but the capability I have to embed images in the email does not work for all email clients.

Your brain does similar processing with other non-literal blind spots. For the most part, we expect other people to act and think the way we do. Warm-hearted people expect others to be warm-hearted. Suspicious people expect others to be suspicious.

The reverse is often true when we think others are different from us. If we've internalized a belief that people of a different class, culture or color are fundamentally different from ourselves, then that "othering" pervades our expectations of them, also. In college, I was sitting with a group of fellow "enlightened" students in the student center, when the topic of conversation suddenly turned to how deplorable rednecks were. After a few minutes of spirited agreement from most of those sitting at the table, the time came for people to leave for their next class. My friend Tom and I were left, looking at each other in shock. He shook his head and said, "I'd though we had gotten beyond that by now." I had, too, but I've come to realize that getting beyond our stereotypes is a lifelong process. First, though, we have to notice that we have blind spots, and where they are. It's so much easier to notice the blind spots of others.

I've got some techniques that I use to help me notice my blind spots, and I'd love to hear about yours.

The Binary Bind

One that I find very helpful is being sensitive to the binary bind. If I'm seeing something as either true or false, that's a trigger for me to look more closely. Pretty much nothing in life is absolute. Everything is "to a degree," and I've found it useful to ask myself "to what degree?" The statement "this is a waste of time" becomes the question "to what degree is this a waste of time?" It often helps to phrase it as the converse, "to what degree is this NOT a waste of time?" If it's hard to quantify, perhaps a comparison will help--"this is/is not a waste of time compared to what?"

Another angle to consider is to ask myself "what are the consequences of this?" If I waste time now, what price will I pay? Do I have something else to do that's both urgent and important? Conversely, "what are the benefits?" Perhaps I'm receiving subtle value from relaxing my body, emptying my mind, and allowing thoughts that have been crowded out by busy-ness to make their presence known.

Checking other points of view is also helpful. "To whom is this a waste of time and to whom is it not?" Different people value different things. Sitting and listening to the birds sing is a waste of time to some, and not to others. I can go further, "what value does this bring to those for whom it's not a waste of time?"

For some situations, the question "how probable?" may be more appropriate than "to what degree?" How likely is it that I will get into a time crunch later if I waste some time now?

False Dilemma

Similar to the binary bind is the false dilemma--where we've identified two options and are trying to choose between them. "Shall I sit here and listen to the birdies, or go clean the bathroom?" These are, of course, not the only two options available to me. Limiting my options to two makes the False Dilemma very much like the Binary Bind. In my experience, when I find myself in a False Dilemma then usually one of my identified options is my preferred one and the other becomes a foil to make the first look good. While listening to the birds may be a waste of time, it certainly sounds preferable to cleaning the bathroom.

Jerry Weinberg used to say, "If I can only think of two options, then I haven't thought about it enough." He applied this not only to options of things to do, but, perhaps more importantly, to options of how to interpret what we've heard or seen from others. It's so easy to jump to conclusions and misunderstand.

The surprising thing is that the third option is rarely somewhere in between the first two, but generally in a different direction altogether. That turns out to be the key to this technique's success. Once I get out of the binary either-or mode, I notice there are many directions I could go. Maybe I'll call up a friend I haven't spoken with in awhile. Or read a book that's been on my side table for months. There are so many things I could do that are pleasant, but don't seem like a waste of time to me.

This technique is valuable enough to me that I've made a habit of it. There are so many times I've noticed I'm considering only two options, and gone looking for a third. While I sometimes struggle to find that third one, when I eventually do, I generally think of quite a few more. And even if I decide to go with my first option, I feel more confident about it after considering others.

What are some of the cues you use to notice your blind spots?

/signed/ George

P.S. You could schedule a Zoom Session with me to talk about strategies and tools for noticing blind spots.

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Or you can also simply reply to this email or send an email to newsletter@idiacomputing.com to continue the conversation. There's a person, not a bot, on this end. I'd really love to hear from you.