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by Faith Breen, Professor, Business Management

Harvard University’s logo is the Latin word “Veritas.” or “Truth.” On the surface, the search for “truth” has been eluding us for many centuries, and the reason may be explained by the management mantra: “Perception is Reality.”  In other words, it is our perception that determines our understanding of reality; or, as my husband and I are constantly reminding each other, “same set of facts, totally different conclusions.”

The validity of alternative perceptions of reality can be easily observed at The Kennedy Center’s performance of Shear Madness. This is a long running interactive play. It is a comedy about a murder that takes place during the first act. Before intermission, the audience is drawn into helping solve the murder. And, in spite of “seeing” the same first act, it is amazing how  differently the “facts” are perceived and interpreted. The audience is polled every step of the way, the majority rules, and the final conclusion of who committed the crime directs the actors to end the play just as the audience voted. I have seen this play several times. The first time I saw it with my family, we could not agree on who committed the crime because each of us had a different set of “facts” and plausible scenarios!1

Furthermore, a recent article in the Washington Post, titled: “Children Outperform Adults in Memory Study,” found that “. . . 5-year-olds could beat most adults on a recognition memory test, [and the reason is that] children used a form of reasoning called similarity-based induction when they analyzed the pictures. When shown subsequent pictures, they looked to see if the animal looked similar to the original . . . . Adults used category-based induction–once they determined what the animal pictured was, they paid no more attention.” The article ended by stating, “When taught category-based induction, the children’s ability to remember dropped to the level of adults.”  This study probably would have not have been that interesting except for the fact that I had just finished reading a book by Richard E. Nisbett, titled: The Geography of Thought.2

In his book, Nisbett presents findings that Asians and Westerners think differently. For example, he found that “ . . .when he showed an animated underwater scene to his American students, they zeroed in on a big fish swimming among smaller fish. Japanese observers instead commented on the background environment.” 

Nisbett also tells of a study that was conducted by a developmental psychologist named Liang-hwang Chiu. In this study, she showed American and Chinese children a picture of a cow, chicken and grass. She then asked them to identify what goes with the cow – A) chicken or B) grass. Indeed, “Chiu found that American children preferred to group objects because they belonged to the ‘taxonomic’ category, that is, the same classification term could be applied to both.” Chinese children preferred to group objects on the basis of relationships. They would be more likely to say the cow and the grass…go together because “the cow eats the grass” (p.140).

Nisbett concludes that “. . . the different ‘seeings’ are a clue to profound cognitive differences between Westerners and East Asians. . . . people think about – and even see – the world differently because of differing ecologies, social structures, philosophies, and educational systems. . . .”  

My purpose is not to debate the value of category-based induction versus similarity-based induction; however, I think it is important for educators to recognize that our emphasis upon category-based induction with its predetermined social/cultural categories may be perpetrating a category/linear type of thinking that devalues relational/non-linear thinking; or worse, prevents us from being flexible enough to use both linear and non-linear approaches to reach our students. And, because of the college’s recent initiative to enhance critical thinking skills, it may be prudent for us to pause and reflect upon the possibility that our educational approaches may inadvertently filter perception and thus distort reality.

1It would be interesting to take a group of faculty and students to this play and see if their conclusions are the same
2Nisbett, Richard E.; The Geography of Thought, Free Press, New York, 2003.


The Instructional Area Newsletter, Volume 20, No. 1 

Fall 2004