Are we what we see in others

News portal - Ruhr University Bochum

Is perceiving something essentially the same as taking a picture of the surroundings? Or do our brains construct a world that we like? In a series of lectures that is now starting in Blue Square, philosophers, psychologists and neuroscientists will provide answers to these questions.

The kick-off will be on Tuesday, October 1, 2019, 6 p.m., Prof. Dr. Albert Newen. The philosopher explains to the audience how we perceive and understand other people and why prejudices are not only bad, but often helpful.

He reveals a few of his thoughts on the subject in this interview.

Mr. Newen, can we actually objectively perceive another person?
This question can be understood in two ways. On the one hand, it can mean: What is the content of my perception when I look at a person? Do I only see colors, shapes and materials that fit together in a certain way, and from this I deduce that there is a person standing there? Or do I see people directly? The latter is the usual opinion, which I also think is theoretically correct.

The other way to understand the question is: If I see people directly, can I see them objectively or always only subjectively colored? There are many characteristics that we can objectively perceive, for example height and clothing. Objectively, this means that these properties can be perceived equally by all people, because the perception system from the eye to the brain is very similar in all people, regardless of background knowledge and cultures.

Perception of size is relative to the viewer and his perspective and distance, but for everyone with the same conditions, the perception can in principle be the same. However, as soon as specific background knowledge is learned, this can influence our perception, especially when the conditions of perception are not optimal: If someone only has an unclear view or can only look briefly because as a US police officer he has to decide immediately whether the person is dangerous then a dark chunky object is seen as a weapon more often in a black's hand than in a white's hand, even if it's just a punch. This is where subjective perceptions shaped by background assumptions and prejudices come into play.

How does our image of another person form on first contact?
We activate a whole bunch of information in less than 100 milliseconds when we see a person. On the basis of characteristics such as gender, age, ethnicity, but also clothing, posture and more, we see people as students, for example, and we directly associate many important characteristics with this person, for example whether they are trustworthy.

Why is it important for us humans to have a precise idea of ​​the nature of another?
People are hypersocial beings who need other people, but at the same time the greatest threats for us humans come from other people. This attests to violence and conflicts in families up to and including world wars. Therefore, we have to determine very quickly and precisely whether the person I meet is peaceful, trustworthy and helpful, or rather the opposite.

In the present world with a pronounced division of labor, we need much more specific assessments. In professional life, one should understand for which task a person is well suited, so that he can do his job well and happily; In the private sphere, it is even more important to adequately assess the people around you in order to avoid disappointment. Here, personal models are central, which we make of individuals, but also of groups such as doctors, lawyers and others. Against this background, our perception of people is pre-shaped: We often see the world as we expect it and not as it is.

The lecture series "How we see the world - philosophy and cognition" starts on October 1st, 2019 at 6 pm in Blue Square, Kortumstraße 90, 44787 Bochum. Admission is free, registration is not required. Then there is a lecture on a different aspect of perception on the first Tuesday of each month. The complete program can be found here.

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