Misjudgement: Why We Trust What We See vs. What We Hear

5 min read
Nuala Walsh

Nuala Walsh

While thousands of images on our smartphones, TikTok and Instagram stimulate our brains, we assume that what we see is more trustworthy than what we hear. It’s a common mistake — and one that directly degrades our decisions.

Without realizing, we over-index our senses. In other words, we rely on visual data at the expense of the data we hear.

Being a great decision-maker means understanding this unconscious cognitive pitfall before rebalancing sources of information — or misinformation!

Seeing Is Believing

The proverbial saying “seeing is believing” transcends cultural, educational or professional boundaries. For instance, some claim to witness UFO sightings and paranormal events, swearing they see statues weep or even bleed. No room exists for debate! I’ve worked with many who would summarize a pie chart with a single glance.

Even experts believe what they see. Dutch art critic and eminent Vermeer scholar Abraham Bredius reacted so emotionally to seeing the Christ at Emmaus painting that he failed to spot it as a forgery. Logic took a back seat. No one asked why there were so many rare works on the market.

While we think we evaluate strategies, situations and strangers objectively, experience suggests otherwise. Who hasn’t succumbed to preconceived notions when judging candidates, neighbors or social media profiles? Who doesn’t size up strangers before engaging in conversation? It’s why Susan Boyle shocked X-Factor viewers and judges. It’s why companies use blind CVs and orchestras hold blind auditions. Consumers even choose movies based on thumbnails and judge books by covers.

One example demonstrates clearly how we assume different meanings in different contexts. A violinist played in a Washington DC subway for 43 minutes, earning a meager $32.17. Over a thousand employees passed but only seven stopped to listen. One woman recognized the renowned Joshua Bell who had played his $3.5 million Stradivarius violin in a symphony hall days before.

The context changes how and who you hear.

This predisposition to snap judgments based on appearances leads to gross misjudgments. For instance, we instinctively judge guilt or innocence based on demeanor. The guilty tend to look shifty, right? Sometimes they even look unremorseful. The price is sustained wrongful convictions, prejudice, and stereotypes.

As I write in my book, Tune in: How to Make Smarter Decisions in a Noisy World, when we blindly trust what we see and forget to challenge, we form flawed perceptions that crater careers, destroy reputations and lead to missed scams, scandals, and even suicides.

So why do we continue to fall into this trap? The answer lies in three fields: physics, neuroscience, and education.

Three Inter-related Disciplines Explain Why

1. Physics

At 340 meters per second, sound travels significantly slower than light which travels at a breathtaking 300 million meters per second. This divergence in speed manifests in different ways. For instance, during bad weather, you see lightning before hearing thunder. In sports, fans see a penalty goal scored before they hear the crowd roar. A gunman sees a blinding flash before hearing the sound of a gunshot. Even people die before their conscious brain registers pain. Sometimes, this can be a benefit.

2. Neuroscience

There’s only so much data our brains can process but most people still crave the false security it offers. “It is perhaps a pity that my eyes have seen more than my brain is able to assimilate or evaluate,” lamented astronaut Michael Collins in Carrying the Fire. Our brains instinctively process images faster than words. For example, renowned MIT neuroscientists estimate that the human brain can process visual information in under 13 milliseconds. That’s quicker than you can read this sentence.

It’s pervasive. Power holders, politicians, professors, and well-meaning parents tend to trust the image seen rather than interpret the words heard. This phenomenon is encapsulated in Albert Mehrabian’s “7–38–55 rule” which states that 55% of communication impact comes from visual body language while intonation accounts for 38%, and words 7%. Put another way, people only recall 7% of what you say but 93% of how you say it.

3. Education

Modern education favors visual learning, relegating other modes to the background. In the 1920s, mainstream psychologists suggested that at least three types of learning exist: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. Most people primarily learn through visual images and pictures. Some learn by listening while a minority learn from hands-on activities.

Despite listening being a critical skill to sustain livelihoods, it’s a crater-sized curriculum gap. So too is understanding human behavior. School programs emphasize reading books rather than understanding behavior. Teachers emphasize listening to conversations rather than interpreting motivations. Many misguided instructors reward students who echo their views rather than thinking independently.

A thought-provoking study by New York University psychologist Emily Balcetis asked students which sensory faculty they would prefer not to lose — if they had to! Which would you choose? Over 70% elected to keep their sight — i.e. the same proportion were willing to sacrifice hearing, taste, and smell.

To counteract this cognitive bias, raising awareness represents the crucial first step. But it’s not enough.

If you want to avoid the pain of regret, you must not only reinterpret messages in high-stakes situations but also engage with dissenting voices. It is only by avoiding a skewed sensory-based perspective that you make smarter decisions and boost your personal and professional influence, reputation, and advantage. It’s time to tune into what really matters.

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