Tag: Relativity

The Observer Effect: Seeing Is Changing

The act of looking at something changes it – an effect that holds true for people, animals, even atoms. Here’s how the observer effect distorts our world and how we can get a more accurate picture.

***

We often forget to factor in the distortion of observation when we evaluate someone’s behavior. We see what they are doing as representative of their whole life. But the truth is, we all change how we act when we expect to be seen. Are you ever on your best behavior when you’re alone in your house? To get better at understanding other people, we need to consider the observer effect: observing things changes them, and some phenomena only exist when observed.

The observer effect is not universal. The moon continues to orbit whether we have a telescope pointed at it or not. But both things and people can change under observation. So, before you judge someone’s behavior, it’s worth asking if they are changing because you are looking at them, or if their behavior is natural. People are invariably affected by observation. Being watched makes us act differently.

“I believe in evidence. I believe in observation, measurement, and reasoning, confirmed by independent observers.”

— Isaac Asimov

The observer effect in science

The observer effect pops up in many scientific fields.

In physics, Erwin Schrödinger’s famous cat highlights the power of observation. In his best-known thought experiment, Schrödinger asked us to imagine a cat placed in a box with a radioactive atom that might or might not kill it in an hour. Until the box opens, the cat exists in a state of superposition (when half of two states each occur at the same time)—that is, the cat is both alive and dead. Only by observing it does the cat shift permanently to one of the two states. The observation removes the cat from a state of superposition and commits it to just one.

(Although Schrodinger meant this as a counter-argument to Einstein’s proposition of superposition of quantum states – he wanted to demonstrate the absurdity of the proposition – it has caught on in popular culture as a thought experiment of the observer effect.)

In biology, when researchers want to observe animals in their natural habitat, it is paramount that they find a way to do so without disturbing those animals. Otherwise, the behavior they see is unlikely to be natural, because most animals (including humans) change their behavior when they are being observed. For instance, Dr. Cristian Damsa and his colleagues concluded in their paper “Heisenberg in the ER” that being observed makes psychiatric patients a third less likely to require sedation. Doctors and nurses wash their hands more when they know their hygiene is being tracked. And other studies have shown that zoo animals only exhibit certain behaviors in the presence of visitors, such as being hypervigilant of their presence and repeatedly looking at them.

In general, we change our behavior when we expect to be seen. Philosopher Jeremy Bentham knew this when he designed the panopticon prison in the eighteenth century, building upon an idea by his brother Samuel. The prison was constructed so that its cells circled a central watchtower so inmates could never tell if they were being watched or not. Bentham expected this would lead to better behavior, without the need for many staff. It never caught on as an actual design for prisons, but the modern prevalence of CCTV is often compared to the Panopticon. We never know when we’re being watched, so we act as if it’s all the time.

The observer effect, however, is twofold. Observing changes what occurs, but observing also changes our perceptions of what occurs. Let’s take a look at that next.

“How much does one imagine, how much observe? One can no more separate those functions than divide light from air, or wetness from water.”

— Elspeth Huxley

Observer bias

The effects of observation get more complex when we consider how each of us filters what we see through our own biases, assumptions, preconceptions, and other distortions. There’s a reason, after all, why double-blinding (ensuring both tester and subject does not receive any information that may influence their behavior) is the gold-standard in research involving living things. Observer bias occurs when we alter what we see, either by only noticing what we expect or by behaving in ways that have influence on what occurs. Without intending to do so, researchers may encourage certain results, leading to changes in ultimate outcomes.

A researcher falling prey to the observer bias is more likely to make erroneous interpretations, leading to inaccurate results. For instance, in a trial for an anti-anxiety drug where researchers know which subjects receive a placebo and which receive actual drugs, they may report that the latter group seems calmer because that’s what they expect.

The truth is, we often see what we expect to see. Our biases lead us to factor in irrelevant information when evaluating the actions of others. We also bring our past into the present and let that color our perceptions as well—so, for example, if someone has really hurt you before, you are less likely to see anything good in what they do.

The actor-observer bias

Another factor in the observer effect, and one we all fall victim to, is our tendency to attribute the behavior of others to innate personality traits. Yet we tend to attribute our own behavior to external circumstances. This is known as the actor-observer bias.

For example, a student who gets a poor grade on a test claims they were tired that day or the wording on the test was unclear. Conversely, when that same student observes a peer who performed badly on a test on which they performed well, the student judges their peer as incompetent or ill-prepared. If someone is late to a meeting with a friend, they rush in apologizing for the bad traffic. But if the friend is late, they label them as inconsiderate. When we see a friend having an awesome time in a social media post, we assume their life is fun all of the time. When we post about ourselves having an awesome time, we see it as an anomaly in an otherwise non-awesome life.

We have different levels of knowledge about ourselves and others. Because observation focuses on what is displayed, not what preceded or motivated it, we see the full context for our own behavior but only the final outcome for other people. We need to take the time to learn the context of other’s lives before we pass judgment on their actions.

Conclusion

We can use the observer effect to our benefit. If we want to change a behavior, finding some way to ensure someone else observes it can be effective. For instance, going to the gym with a friend means they know if we don’t go, making it more likely that we stick with it. Tweeting about our progress on a project can help keep us accountable. Even installing software on our laptop that tracks how often we check social media can reduce our usage.

But if we want to get an accurate view of reality, it is important we consider how observing it may distort the results. The value of knowing about the observer effect in everyday life is that it can help us factor in the difference that observation makes. If we want to gain an accurate picture of the world, it pays to consider how we take that picture. For instance, you cannot assume that an employee’s behavior in a meeting translates to their work, or that the way your kids act at home is the same as in the playground. We all act differently when we know we are being watched.

Using Models to Stay Calm in Charged Situations

When polarizing topics are discussed in meetings, passions can run high and cloud our judgment. Learn how mental models can help you see clearly from this real-life scenario.

***

Mental models can sometimes come off as an abstract concept. They are, however, actual tools you can use to navigate through challenging or confusing situations. In this article, we are going to apply our mental models to a common situation: a meeting with conflict.

A recent meeting with the school gave us an opportunity to use our latticework. Anyone with school-age kids has dealt with the bureaucracy of a school system and the other parents who interact with it. Call it what you will, all school environments usually have some formal interface between parents and the school administration that is aimed at progressing issues and ideas of importance to the school community.

The particular meeting was an intense one. At issue was the school’s communication around a potentially harmful leak in the heating system. Some parents felt the school had communicated reasonably about the problem and the potential consequences. Others felt their child’s life had been put in danger due to potential exposure to mold and asbestos. Some parents felt the school could have done a better job of soliciting feedback from students about their experiences during the previous week, and others felt the school administration had done a poor job about communicating potential risks to parents.

The first thing you’ll notice if you’re in a meeting like this is that emotions on all sides run high. After some discussion you might also notice a few more things, like how many people do the following:

Any of these occurrences, when you hear them via statements from people around the table, are a great indication that using a few mental models might improve the dynamics of the situation.

The first mental model that is invaluable in situations like this is Hanlon’s Razor: don’t attribute to maliciousness that which is more easily explained by incompetence. (Hanlon’s Razor is one of the 9 general thinking concepts in The Great Mental Models Volume One.) When people feel victimized, they can get angry and lash out in an attempt to fight back against a perceived threat. When people feel accused of serious wrongdoing, they can get defensive and withhold information to protect themselves. Neither of these reactions is useful in a situation like this. Yes, sometimes people intentionally do bad things. But more often than not, bad things are the result of incompetence. In a school meeting situation, it’s safe to assume everyone at the table has the best interests of the students at heart. School staff and administrators usually go into teaching motivated by a deep love of education. They genuinely want their schools to be amazing places of learning, and they devote time and attention to improving the lives of their students.

It makes no sense to assume a school’s administration would deliberately withhold harmful information. Yes, it could happen. But, in either case, you are going to obtain more valuable information if you assume poor decisions were the result of incompetence versus maliciousness.

When we feel people are malicious toward us, we instinctively become a negatively coiled spring, waiting for the right moment to take them down a notch or two. Removing malice from the equation, you give yourself emotional breathing room to work toward better solutions and apply more models.

The next helpful model is relativity, adapted from the laws of physics. This model is about remembering that everyone’s perspective is different from yours. Understanding how others see the same situation can help you move toward a more meaningful dialogue with the people in the meeting. You can do this by looking around the room and asking yourself what is influencing people’s approaches to the situation.

In our school meeting, we see some people are afraid for their child’s health. Others are influenced by past dealings with the school administration. Authorities are worried about closing the school. Teachers are concerned about how missed time might impact their students’ learning. Administrators are trying to balance the needs of parents with their responsibility to follow the necessary procedures. Some parents are stressed because they don’t have care for their children when the school closes. There is a lot going on, and relativity gives us a lens to try to identify the dynamics impacting communication.

After understanding the different perspectives, it becomes easier to incorporate them into your thinking. You can diffuse conflict by identifying what it is you think you hear. Often, just the feeling of being heard will help people start to listen and engage more objectively.

Now you can dive into some of the details. First up is probabilistic thinking. Before we worry about mold levels or sick children, let’s try to identify the base rates. What is the mold content in the air outside? How many children are typically absent due to sickness at this time of year? Reminding people that severity has to be evaluated against something in a situation like this can really help diffuse stress and concern. If 10% of the student population is absent on any given day, and in the week leading up to these events 12% to 13% of the population was absent, then it turns out we are not actually dealing with a huge statistical anomaly.

Then you can evaluate the anecdotes with the model of the Law of Large Numbers in mind. Small sample sizes can be misleading. The larger your group for evaluation, the more relevant the conclusions. In a situation such as our school council meeting, small sample sizes only serve to ratchet up the emotion by implying they are the causal outcomes of recent events.

In reality, any one-off occurrence can often be explained in multiple ways. One or two children coming home with hives? There are a dozen reasonable explanations for that: allergies, dry skin, reaction to skin cream, symptom of an illness unrelated to the school environment, and so on. However, the more children that develop hives, the more it is statistically possible the cause relates to the only common denominator between all children: the school environment.

Even then, correlation does not equal causation. It might not be a recent leaky steam pipe; is it exam time? Are there other stressors in the culture? Other contaminants in the environment? The larger your sample size, the more likely you will obtain relevant information.

Finally, you can practice systems thinking and contribute to the discussion by identifying the other components in the system you are all dealing with. After all, a school council is just one part of a much larger system involving governments, school boards, legislators, administrators, teachers, students, parents, and the community. When you put your meeting into the bigger context of the entire system, you can identify the feedback loops: Who is responding to what information, and how quickly does their behavior change? When you do this, you can start to suggest some possible steps and solutions to remedy the situation and improve interactions going forward.

How is the information flowing? How fast does it move? How much time does each recipient have to adjust before receiving more information? Chances are, you aren’t going to know all this at the meeting. So you can ask questions. Does the principal have to get approval from the school board before sending out communications involving risk to students? Can teachers communicate directly with parents? What are the conditions for communicating possible risk? Will speculation increase the speed of a self-reinforcing feedback loop causing panic? What do parents need to know to make an informed decision about the welfare of their child? What does the school need to know to make an informed decision about the welfare of their students?

In meetings like the one described here, there is no doubt that communication is important. Using the meeting to discuss and debate ways of improving communication so that outcomes are generally better in the future is a valuable use of time.

A school meeting is one practical example of how having a latticework of mental models can be useful. Using mental models can help you diffuse some of the emotions that create an unproductive dynamic. They can also help you bring forward valuable, relevant information to assist the different parties in improving their decision-making process going forward.

At the very least, you will walk away from the meeting with a much better understanding of how the world works, and you will have gained some strategies you can implement in the future to leverage this knowledge instead of fighting against it.