I am always amazed at how we humans are so attached to our ideas and opinions of reality when in fact they have little basis in reality. We have certain ideas that we think are real and actually matter to our lives when they are just contrivances that we have somehow cast as real in our lives. The Zen master Bankei addresses this in one of his lectures when he talks about how some people are attached to the vessel they drink out of rather than the content. They are so sure that the vessel makes the drink when in reality it is only our mind that makes such attachments. I am sure there are those that might be able to tell the difference between wine sipped from fine crystal versus porcelain but they are few and far between. We are not bloodhounds. For years now I have only used one cup to drink beverages from be it coffee, water, wine or juice. I make no pretenses about being able to tell the difference because I can’t. I know that other vessels feel differently but I don’t think they have any effect on the taste other than psychologically.
In what seem like a fairly mundane example of this I would like to tell you about one of my experiences with this. Years ago my youngest brother’s friends would come to my parent’s house and visit. They would sit and drink beer and play cards. They each brought their own six pack of beer because they each had there own very strong preferences of what they drank. Each would only drink their own certain brand of beer. One night I took each of their beers and put them into glasses that were numbered on the bottom and challenged each to pick their beer. They were certain they could do it. There were five different beers in five different glasses and none of us could see the number on it. I took the test too even though I was not much of a beer drinker. After we were finished we compared notes. I got 3 out of 5 beers right mainly because I did not like Genesee because it was too sweet and thought Coors light had no taste. I forget what the other beers were. Not one of the other participants got their beer right, not one! They were very surprised and you might expect that this would cause some self reflection and reevaluation of their opinions. It did nothing of the sort, if anything, they were annoyed at the challenge. Recently a major micro brewery decided to go to cans over bottles to save money. Their customers were in an uproar but they did a double blind study on it to see if they could tell the difference between canned beer and bottled. Before the test the participants were absolutely sure they could tell the difference but the results were shocking, they were wrong over 75% of the time.
It might be understandable how the ordinary folk might be fooled but what about the true professionals, surely they have it right. Here is a more drastic example of this type of self bias. Researchers did a comparison of Stradivarius violins and cheaper models. The Strad is the holy grail of violins and musicians pay millions of dollars to own one. They did this experiment with concert violinists. Only 7 out of 17 participants got it right. Here is the audio story on this experiment: http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/01/02/144482863/double-blind-violin-test-can-you-pick-the-strad
Another strong example of this is the taste test conducted with real wine somaliers. Somebody snuck in a bottle of Two Buck Chuck, the wine sold at Trader Joe’s for two bucks, among the pricey wines ranging from $15 to $50 a bottle. Two Buck Chuck came in tenth out of forty wines or so. There was a lot of outrage over this test. I think if you served the most expensive wine and TBC but swapped their bottles most would pick the expensive labeled bottle even though it was full of cheap wine. Clearly there are bad violins, lousy beers and cheap wines that don’t measure up but the majority of time it’s our bias we carry and not the reality of the moment.
In my field as an audio engineer I have encountered this many times. When I ask those with great preferences over microphones or speakers to do a double blind test they almost always fail. When they fail the test do they then reevaluate their positions? Hell no, they give all kinds of excuses on how it was skewed and often get angry with me. We have no idea on how we are so bound to our opinion of things not realizing that they are just that, opinions with no basis in reality. The odd thing is that when we are proved wrong about the ability to make these discerning decisions we don’t change out attitudes, we don’t want to give up our attachment to our opinions no matter how often we are proven wrong. This is an odd aspect of the human mind. We cling to what we believe rather than what we could know.
A politician is confronted with blatant contradictions in their beliefs over the years and somehow they dismiss it. Religious teachers are presented with massive contradiction in their own belief systems and they ignore it somehow. It is not the truth that wins out with us but our opinion of the truth. Now I hear Jack Nicholson’s voice ringing in my head, “The truth, you can’t handle the truth.”
For me this is a fascinating area of study. Years ago I had my comeuppance with a famous audio engineer. I had stated that I could tell the difference of the sound of varied audio boards and he took me up on it and played me different examples. I failed miserably and it really deconstructed my entire view of my craft. I was really inspired by this to try to see things more clearly and accurately. Sadly, when I do these tests with other people they are not in the least bit amused and are often angry with me. Rather than feeling informed or educated by it they feel they lose face. I don’t think it’s a matter of losing face at all but the exposing the vagaries of human consciousness. Our minds do not perceive things correctly and our beliefs make us cling to things that are specious at best. When you begin to see the problems with your consciousness you can begin to do something about correcting it.
There is a very interesting book on this topic called The Invisible Gorilla by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. It’s quite a good read and it might really change the way you think about things.
Ideas, articles, lessons, and retrospective moments.