We Notice What We Are Interested In … and ignore what we are not interested in.

This is something that I have been thinking about for sometime – the way our brains filter information. It’s helpful, as we can’t deal with all of the information available to us. However, the down side is that we

  • a) block some of the important information
  • b) assume that we have full knowledge about subjects
  • c) block information that doesn’t meet our world view

Here are a few examples:

I heard someone describing how a group of people were talking about themselves and the work that they do. He was shocked by the words they used and how they were talking down their own impact. He made the connection between that and their inability to get to speak to senior people in their organisation. He then said “I hear it all the time”. At this point it became clear that he worked with individuals on their communication styles. And I thought “aha, you hear it all the time because you listen out for it.” I wondered whether he “heard” them talking that way because that was his interest. He had a theory and was applying that to this situation.

A number of years ago I attended a workshop on dealing with conflict. The workshop was excellent. However, one of the attendees put in a complaint (and tried to include me in this “class action”.) His complaint was that the handouts were very badly produced. He was right, they were dreadful. However, the content of them was great and it shouldn’t have really undermined the day. But for this person it did. His job? He managed a reprographic department. For him the whole day was ruined because he couldn’t ignore the lack of professionalism over the handouts.

You hear a word or phrase for the first time then hear it 5 times in the following week. Did the universe just make up its mind to keep sharing this with you? No, it’s just that you are filtering for it. I learned the word ambit today. I wonder how long before I hear it again.

I train people to use PowerPoint effectively. It isn’t my life’s purpose but it does seem to figure a lot in my work. Consequently I notice a lot of poor practice. I try to ignore it but inevitably find myself making mental notes on how someone has done something wrong; drives me nuts.

It has long been known that we quickly make up our minds about a person or situation and then look for the information to back our position or ignore information that contradicts it. Not great when you are map reading. Terrible if you are making judgements about people in an interview. Potentially lethal if you are trying to diagnose an illness.

Next time you find yourself saying “I hear this all the time” ask yourself why you hear it a lot. Is it because this is what is said, is it because you are listening to a selection of people who are all saying the same thing (and why is that, by the way) or is it because you are filtering out other voices?

People have their pet theories and then find lots of examples that back these theories up. I hear it all the time.