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Being aware of your lens (or, why businesses have such a hard time truly understanding their customers)

Todd Haskell | September 9, 2020

We all walk through life with glasses on. These aren't physical glasses that you get from an optician, though many of us have those as well. They are mental glasses, though they are just as real as the pair perched on the bridge of my nose right now. These mental glasses do just what physical glasses do, that is, make things look different. But you can never take them off. And because they are hidden away inside our mind, we forget we are wearing them, or maybe never realize we have glasses on in the first place. We can then get lured into the belief that how we see the world is how it really is. And that's when the problems start.

The cognitive scientist in me is pushing me to be a little more precise. I'm using glasses as a metaphor of course. The mental glasses are actually our goals, knowledge, and beliefs. They shape how we see the world through something psychologists call top-down processing. And frankly, top-down processing is a human superpower - it's one of the reasons state-of-the-art AI still struggles with certain tasks that seem trivial even to a child. Let's look at a couple examples to understand how it works.

I'm feeling lazy this morning so I'm going to leave a few letters out of a w___ in this sentence.

For the most part, you read that sentence using bottom-up processing. To understand where the terms bottom-up and top-down come from, think of the external world, like this screen, as being at the bottom of the page. Your conscious mind is at the top of the page. In bottom-up processing, the flow of information goes from the external world toward your mind. So, light comes in your eyes, you identify the shapes of letters, then the shapes of words, dig up from memory what those words mean, and put it all together to understand the whole sentence.

When you got to the word with the missing letters, this bottom-up processing broke down. With only one letter, you can't figure out what word you're dealing with or retrieve its meaning. Yet I'm guessing it didn't take you more than a fraction of a second to get past this obstacle. That's because top-down processing kicked in. As you could probably guess, that's when the flow of information goes from your mind toward the external world. In this case, you are able to use your knowledge of the English language along with the meaning of the rest of the sentence to make an educated guess about what the missing letters should be. In fact, you would probably be surprised and confused if I told you I meant to write 'wand.'

The need for top-down processing was pretty obvious in the missing letters example, and you were undoubtedly aware that letters were missing. However, we actually use top-down processing constantly, and the vast majority of the time we are not consciously aware that we are doing it. Here's another example:

Alaina pounded in the final nail. The birdhouse was finished.

So let me ask you: What did Alaina pound the final nail into? If you said "the birdhouse," how did you know that? The sentences don't actually say. Rather, you had to make what psychologists call a bridging inference. And to do that, you had to make use of your knowledge of the world. First of all, you had to assume that that the two sentences were supposed to be related, so that it makes sense to search for ways to connect them. Then in searching for connections, you would need to remember that birdhouses are often made of wood, and that nails can be used to join pieces of wood. All of that probably happened quickly, automatically, and without your conscious awareness. But it's exactly the sort of thing that would trip up an AI, which is why I call it a human superpower.

Of course, every compelling superhero has to have a weakness. That's why I like the glasses metaphor. I have presbyopia, which makes it hard for my eyes to focus on nearby objects. So when I read or work on a computer, I need to wear glasses. The glasses make the words on my screen much clearer. But if I look out the window, they make the trees across the street blurry. If I take the glasses off, the trees come into sharp focus again. But the text on my screen is blurry. To put it simply, my glasses make some things clearer at the cost of making other things blurrier. Top-down processing is like that as well. Remember, it's all about using your goals, knowledge, and beliefs to make an educated guess. Emphasis on your. If someone else has different goals, knowledge, and beliefs, top-down processing can easily lead you astray.

I'll give you a concrete example that has come up in my teaching. Suppose on the first homework assignment of the term, I write at the top that it's due 10/14 and that it should be submitted online. A student submits the assignment at 11:59 pm, and I apply a late penalty to the grade. The student asks why there's a late penalty since they submitted it on 10/14 as requested. I point to the class schedule, where it says at the top "All assignments are due at 5 pm unless otherwise indicated." The student says they never saw that, and assumed the homework was due at midnight.

In this situation, we were both victims of our glasses. From the student's point of view, no due time was specified. They've undoubtedly had assignments in the past that were due at times other than midnight - for example, an assignment might be due at the beginning of class. So why assume midnight in this case? Because top-down processing is influenced not just by our knowledge but by our goals. The student wanted the assignment to be due at midnight. So when they didn't see a specific due time, they made a self-serving assumption. It would not be difficult to come up with evidence to support that assumption, such as other instances of midnight deadlines. And all of that may happen without conscious awareness, such that the student isn't even aware of any ambiguity until they see their grade.

Of course, I also made an assumption - that it was reasonable for the students to figure out the due time from the information I had given them. Naturally this seemed reasonable to me, since I knew where all the relevant information could be found. And once the student approached me about the late penalty, I had a motivation to stick with that assumption, because it's easier to blame someone else for the outcome than to consider what you could have done differently. So my glasses shaped how I saw the situation, too.

We could argue about who was right and whether the student should get a late penalty or not. But I think it misses the bigger point I'm making. Looking through our own glasses, the world appears a particular way, and certain things feel right. But through someone else's glasses, the world looks different, and what seems right to us may not seem right to them. If we hope to be able to interact with each other and both walk away feeling satisfied about things, we need to acknowledge this, and not always insist that other people accept our view of the world.

Some of my colleagues argue that as part of being an adult students need to accept responsibility for figuring these things out themselves, because once they're out in the real world they're not going to get a lot of hand-holding. I used to see things that way, too. Now I realize that what they're really saying is that it's the job of the student to figure out how the professor thinks, rather than the job of the professor to figure out how the students think. Well, consider this. I'm a middle-class white male whose parents both went to college. Imagine a Latina first-generation college student from a family that can barely make ends meet. Am I really going to stand in front of that student and lecture her about hand-holding?

So what does this all mean from a business perspective? Far too often, it seems like businesses get stuck at a place where they're arguing with customers over who is right. For example, a bank charges a late fee on a credit card payment by the family of that Latina student. The bank never asks why the payment was late. They don't ask because they're only concerned with their view of the world. Late payments create complications and additional costs for the bank, and so a late fee is seen as a justifiable measure to discourage them. But that approach involves certain assumptions about why the payment was late, namely, that it was late because the cardholder was irresponsible. But what if it was late because the family just didn't have the money on the due date? Then a late fee does nothing to discourage the late payment, but creates additional difficulties for the family.

Imagine another approach. Imagine that the bank realizes that they are looking at the situation through their own lens, not the lens of the customer. To address this, they identify customers that have made late payments, and go to talk to them. Not to lecture them, but to try to understand what causes those late payments to occur. And then they use that understanding to build solutions that work for both the bank and the cardholder.

Some of you might be thinking that this sounds nice but is unrealistic. After all, the purpose of a corporation is to make money, not solve societal ills. To be sure, that's one lens for looking at the situation. But let me suggest another: What if we said instead that the purpose of a business is to serve customer needs? That making money is necessary in order to keep doing that, but isn't the core goal? As before, I don't think it's helpful to argue about which position is correct. The point is just that there are different perspectives. Truly successful businesses know that, and view those multiple perspectives as a resource rather than an obstacle.

How is it a resource? I said earlier that top-down processing is both a superpower and a weakness. At the level of individuals, that is definitely true. And it is therefore important to acknowledge when and how it can be a weakness. But the good news is that when we work collectively, we can get all the benefits while compensating for the weaknesses. That happens when we recognize that our weakness may be someone else's strength. Imagine two people, one nearsighted and one farsighted. Separately, half the world looks blurry to them. Together, they can see everything clearly.