What We See Is . . . Well, it Depends

We had just moved into our Phoenix house and I was busy re-potting plants that had been shipped in the moving van. Six days in the dark, in a closed in moving van in August, and I was delighted that all the plants had made it.

Wasp nest in a tree. Paper wasps build beautifully patterned nests.

As I looked around the backyard, I was pleased to recognize a fig and two palo verdes, an orange and. . . another tree that hadn’t fared well lately. It was pretty tired looking. The trees hadn’t been watered in a while, so I set the hose to work, watering the parched ground while I re-potted the plants.

The pots were looking good when a wasp zipped by me, did a U-turn and flew by again. I’m allergic to wasps, but not scared of them. Where was my Epi-Pen? In the medicine cabinet already? In my purse? I didn’t remember. The wasp was gone, so I continued to work. Another wasp flew by, a bit closer.

Stepping back from the potting project I looked around the yard. There, in the tree that I didn’t know the name of, was a wasp nest. About as big as a large orange. Deciding it was time to move some of the re-potted plants indoors, I asked my husband to check out the wasp nest. Did he want to remove it, or was it time to call an exterminator?

He went out into the backyard while I located the Epi-Pen. He came in, smiling. “I know what kind of a tree that is,” he said.

“Really?” I asked. Of the two of us, he is far less likely to be the tree identifier. “What kind is it?”

He grinned. “It’s a grapefruit tree, and that’s no wasp nest, it’s a grapefruit!”

Grapefruit, ready to pick and eat. You can’t do that with a wasp nest.

I was stunned. I was positive I had seen a wasp nest. After all, the two wasps were flying around and. . . I went outside, certain he was wrong. I’d seen the nest. I know wasp nests. But when I looked, it was, indeed, a grapefruit.

The mistake was easy to understand–see the wasp, see the pale round thing, and decide it is a wasp nest. My certainty had been at 100 percent. And it had been 100 percent wrong. So positive it had been a wasp nest, I actually looked around for that nest. Nope, just a grapefruit.

It’s true so often. We see what we expect to see. We are certain what people will say to us, or how they will behave. We are sure when we have no idea at all. We assign people roles, we expect to be hurt, or disappointed. We do this all with great certainty, without knowing at all. After a while it becomes a habit. All in all, I’d rather be surrounded by grapefruits than wasp nests. And that’s what I’m going to expect to see on those trees.

—Quinn McDonald loves grapefruits. The ones on her trees will be ripe in mid-December. Meanwhile, she’s writing her book.

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10 responses to “What We See Is . . . Well, it Depends

  1. What a great story. I know I have found myself in similar situations before, where I was absolutely sure about something and was proven wrong, and still I didn’t quite believe that I had been wrong. It is very disconcerting.

  2. Aloha e Quinn!

    I’ve only recently become aware of how often I do this. Embarrassingly, I do it all the time!

    The only solace I take is that it can be helpful when writing–I will see a situation I know nothing/very little about and create a story about it in my mind.

    But in REAL LIFE, I find that I do such a great disservice to people by making such assumptions. And a great disservice to myself–because I’ve “written a story” in my mind about them and/or the situation that isn’t always true. And I don’t give them (or me) the chance to be exactly as they are.

    Even if I’m not saying it aloud, I’m writing the story inside my head. So I’m trying–always trying!–to be quiet and listen.

    We might be missing out on some lovely grapefruits! Ha!

    Much Aloha to you.

  3. …and we don’t see what we don’t expect. This leads, among other things, to people being hit by trains.

    Human nervous systems don’t work the way they’re commonly imagined to function. Eyes are not cameras, and memory is not a filing cabinet. As Will Rogers said, “The problem ain’t what people know. It’s what people know that ain’t so, that’s the problem.” Nearly everything we know, ain’t so.

    • Which is why optical illusions work, and eye witnesses are terrible reporters of the truth, and scientists aren’t nearly as objective as they’d like to think.

      • It seems to me one of the most important characteristics of the scientific method itself is to acknowledge that bias is inescapable, and the idea of science is to attempt to correct for it. That’s the basis for peer reviews, experimental design, and publishing. It’s difficult — part of my master’s degree is in experimental design, which is a topic you can spend a whole career focusing on.

        One thing that surprises many people (including me) when starting to learn how to do science is that when somebody picks apart your experimental plan or your analysis or findings, and finds an error, you’re *glad*. Software development is like that too.

        • Business should be that way, too. But alas, most are not.

          • I find business enormously overrated, at least in the US, in almost every way. Most business problems are pretty simple and not challenging. Business generally rewards repetition over innovation. Business too often reinforces things humans have largely tended to agree, over the last few thousand years, are not among our best qualities: selfishness, greed, aggrandizement, and short-sightedness.

            “Business” gets an enormous amount of boosterism in the US that it doesn’t deserve. It’s certainly a good way to distribute physical goods and services, but I don’t find it to go much beyond that.

          • I agree. And I think people who work in businesses have to think the same way or they can’t do their work.

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