Michael Bar-Eli, Ph.D.

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The Illusory Nature of the Objective

Understanding human behavior relies on subjective perception and interpretation.

Posted Feb 13, 2018

Israel’s soccer league has two traditional archrivals: Maccabi and Hapoel Tel-Aviv. The color of Maccabi’s uniforms is predominantly yellow, while Hapoel’s is red. Red has different meanings and connotations in our culture, some positive, others negative. On the one hand it represents happiness and celebration, love, and passion, such as in the wonderful 1984 film The Woman in Red featuring the unforgettable Kelly LeBrock, or in Chris De Burgh’s beautiful romantic song “Lady in Red” from 1986. On the other hand, the color stands for hatred, anger, aggression, or danger. When people are mad they “see red”; stop signs and other warning signals are red; and on military maps, the enemy is red. For a Maccabi fan, a red shirt is as much a stressor as a red sheet is to a bull, whereas for Hapoel fans the same shirt may create feelings of joy and happiness.

Subjective interpretations of seemingly simple and “objective” things like color deeply affect our thoughts, feelings, and lives. Psychologists attempt to assess these thoughts and feelings using tools such as the verbal interview, which evidently communicates one’s subjective perceptions. However, what about questionnaires that use, let’s say, multiple choices and/or numerical (“Likert”) scales? These are often considered more objective, but in reality they are nothing more than subjectivity in an objective disguise. The fact that we express our feelings and thoughts through numerical measurements doesn’t make them more objective, just “quantifiably subjective”—the numerical representation of a subjective experience.

By contrast, physiological and/or motor modes of behavior are often considered to be more objective. Such observable behavior probably does result in greater objectivity, but if we solely measure physiological human responses or motor observations without taking the individuals’ subjective interpretation into account, they may render meaningless. Only after measuring both objective responses and their subjective interpretations can we better understand the real meaning of a person’s behavior. Let me give you two examples.

Have you ever noticed what happens immediately after an important, tight, and tense basketball game, when a team wins by one point after scoring a decisive basket in the last second? Most of the players, coaches, and assistant coaches lie on the floor and cry: one side out of joy and happiness, the other from disappointment and frustration. It’s the same motor response (lying on the floor) and physiological response (crying) to two totally opposite subjective experiences—joy and happiness versus disappointment and frustration.

Similarly, let’s consider a funeral. Again, we see people crying, so most of us conclude that these people are sad, but there are many other possible explanations for their tears. They could actually be glad if they are beneficiaries of the deceased person’s will. If the deceased was a filthy old miser who “refused” to die, wouldn’t most of his beneficiaries actually think (but never say!) “At last, we got rid of the bastard”? Or perhaps the people attending are indifferent, but know they are expected to show some emotion, so they pretend to be sad. Or maybe they are sick with fever or even have sand in their eyes (as happens very often in the desert which surrounds Beer-Sheva, where I live).

Of course the same goes with color, which may be interpreted either as a positive or negative stimulus depending, to a great extent, on the subjective perceptions of individuals, such as if they are Maccabi or Hapoel fans.

This is not to say that there is no objective reality out there—I believe, in fact, there is. The notion that this objective reality is always psychologically relevant, however, is illusory: people buy sweaters not because of the temperature, but because they feel cold; some of us are afraid of garter snakes despite the fact that we know they are not poisonous.   

What matters, then, for us in our daily lives is to try to understand the way others read and interpret the world. This is true whether we’re considering the feelings of a friend or partner after an argument, the response of a co-worker or colleague at work, or how our children behave at the dinner table. When we incorporate others’ subjective considerations into our own thoughts and decision-making processes, we are able to better assess a given situation, the likely outcomes, and how our actions will affect them. In doing so, we develop a deeper understanding of other people’s motivations and actions, along with our own. 

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