After reading this Deron Snyder article about making snap racial judgments, I was reminded of my own mis-perception on a recent business trip. As my group pulled up to the hotel, we noticed a large African-American man and a very attractive Caucasian woman conversing at the back of the taxi. He was somewhat unkempt, and definitely dressed very casually. She looked like she had just stepped out of a salon, wearing a short, casual dress which complemented her figure. They appeared to be having a conversation about the future pick-up from the hotel for the trip back to the airport a few days in the future as he pulled suitcases out of the trunk. What happened next is what floored all of us: he took his suitcases into the hotel to check in, and she jumped in the driver's seat of the cab and took off. Everyone in my party completely misread the roles, whether by race, gender, or appearance (or all three), we automatically assumed he was the taxi driver and she was the customer.
If you've ever read Blink by Malcolm Gladwell (truly, one of my favorite books), you learn how your mind really works. It's an amazing computer, allowing us to generate snap decisions, often with great accuracy. Gladwell even covers the race/perception issue with alarming clarity. However, when you look at situations outlined in the article or even your own personal judgments as a systems thinking problem, it really brings things into clearer focus.
Whenever we look at ANY situation, what we see are not the only inputs reaching our brains. We are also seeing our own past experiences, our judgments, our values, our prejudices, our paradigms. Tom Vilsack saw what Fox News wanted him (and everyone else) to see. Based on that information, and his own set of perceptual filters available to him at the time, he reacted... incorrectly.
Next time you go people watching, try something: suspend judgment. Just try to see what is actually there. It's not as easy as it sounds. You're challenging your mental system by suppressing inputs which the brain naturally wants to process. Now... the next time you have to make a decision at your job, try the same thing. What are the facts, and what are the filters?