Ellen Langer

When we look at the “same” thing, what do we see? Presumably, we see the same thing. This simple assumption may be at the core of most of our interpersonal difficulties. Instead consider that 1) we may see different aspects of the same target; 2) we may see the same aspects differently; and 3) we may see the same aspects the same way and interpret them quite differently.

The first of these is the most familiar. When a flute player hears an orchestra, the notes played by the flutist may be most salient, while the rap artist may look instead for the repetitive beat of the music. The nutritionist, similarly may observe the lard in an oreo cookie that is totally missed by the hungry child or the adult on a diet. When we try to resolve interpersonal conflicts, it is these sorts of differences we try to find.

The second of these, that we may notice the same stimulus but interpret it differently, is also familiar when the difference in question is one of evaluation. The optimist see the glass as half full, the pessimist, as half empty. When evaluation is not the issue, however, this difference is much more obscure and often reveals that we are ignoring the fact that the same stimulus may look quite different to the two of us. We are in a paddock and five horses come running in our direction. To me, the horses are coming “to say hello” and so I stay to greet them. To everyone else they are coming “to trample us” and so all of you quickly run away. Because there are more of you, the consensus is that I’m in denial. If most of us stay and only one runs away, the person who runs is taken to be a coward. These attributions suggest we are unaware that we are really not seeing the same thing at all.

The third instance, where we acknowledge that we are seeing the same thing, but differ in our interpretation of what we see, is the least appreciated difference. Here we have the successful entrepreneurs who notice the chaos and look for opportunity. It is different from the difference between optimists and pessimists in that initially the view of the stimulus event is the same. What is done with the material is what differs. If no one in a community knows how to ride a bicycle and there are no bicycles, one may conclude that it would be a poor business venture to open a bicycle store there; someone else may see it as a great opportunity in that the market has not been tapped yet.