Seeing things from different perspectives

We often do what we have always done and there is therefore a lot of room for improvement by questioning and changing perspectives.

Picasso - portrait of Dora Maar

Different people can have completely different experiences when confronted with the same stimulus. A certain piece of music can be perceived by one person as something happy and positive while another person associates the same music with a broken heart. The same music can therefore give rise to both elated joy and deep sadness.

The following two short stories illustrate how one can look at the same situation in two completely different ways.

One day Pablo Picasso was asked by a man why he did not paint people how they really looked like. Picasso then asked the man how people really look. “Here”, said the man and took out a photograph of his wife.

Picasso looked closely at the photo and said “Isn’t she very small? And quite flat?“.

Two men were on safari in Kenya when one morning they woke up by a roaring lion. The obviously angry lion had spotted the two men and was slowly approaching them with its head bent down and the teeth exposed. One of the men began to run away barefoot in the rugged terrain, while the other man started putting on his boots.

His friend shouted, “Are you crazy? The lion runs faster than you even with your boots on“. The other man continued to put on his boots but shouted back: “The way I see it, I don’t have to run faster than the lion. I just need to run faster than you!

It is fascinating how easy our brain can be influenced to adopt a certain perspective and how that perspective then affects our ability, e.g. for problem solving.

In a famous Dutch study, the researchers randomly divided the participants into two different groups. One group was primed to be thinking like a university professor, while the other group was primed to be the thinking like a football hooligan. Afterwards, they had to answer a number of knowledge (Trivial Pursuit) questions. The professor group answered 60% of the questions correctly, while the hooligan group only answered 46% of the questions correctly.

A number of everyday products around us look like they do and are designed as they are because of historical factors that have now often fallen into oblivion. For many years, the model numbers of Peugeot cars were three-digit with a zero in the middle. Why? Because in the automobile infancy before the starter motor was invented, the zero was the place where you inserted the removable crank handle to start the engine. Nowadays, the model designation is no longer related to engine function (unless the idea behind the new four-digit model designations with two zeros in the middle is meant to be the future place for charging their electric cars), but there are many more impractical remains from history.

Consider for example the keyboard on your computer, where the top row starts with QWERTY. The placement of the letters is not adapted for maximum speed, but on the contrary, the type arms of the very first mechanical typewriters were hooked to each other if one wrote too quickly. The keyboard was therefore designed to reduce the speed instead of increasing it, a feature that today unnecessarily slows down the writing of hundreds of millions of daily computer users.

Or consider why the digits on a pocket calculator (7, 8, 9, 6, 5, 4 …) are placed differently than on a mobile phone (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 …).

These are just a few examples of how often things are the way they have always been and therefore there is a lot of room for improvement by questioning and changing perspectives.

Illustration: Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Dora Maar

This blog post has been inspired by: Luc De Brabandere (2005). The forgotten half of change: Achieving greater creativity through changes in perception.

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Author: Karl Ekdahl

International public health leader and creativity blogger.

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