Many of you, at some point in your or college days, probably participated in a little classroom exercise where your teacher whispered a statement into the ear of the student in the front desk of the first row. That student then whispered the same statement he just heard into the ear of the student sitting behind him. This continues up and down each row until the final student stands and repeats to the class what the statement was.
At that point there will usually be some head shaking, snickering or even outright laughter as students wonder why the words this student just uttered were so different from what was whispered to them. As the statement whispered by the teacher was relayed from person to person it changed slightly each time. After going through the ears and mouths of 20 to 30 individuals, the final statement became very different from the original statement that started it all.
There are many explanations for this phenomenon, but those folks paid the big bucks to study such things typically theorize it stems from selective hearing caused by the inherent biases of the people participating in the exercise. In other words, our brains tend to pay more attention to those things that reinforce our own beliefs, and in turn filter out or diminish those things that conflict with what we believe.
A perfect example is a political debate. If you strongly support Candidate A and your friend is staunchly for Candidate B, you will each filter what is said through your own bias. When your candidate makes a valid point, in your mind it seems like a homerun. When the opposing candidate makes a strong point, your mind tends to downplay the statement and not give it the credit it deserves.
After watching a football game in which your team lost, I'm sure you've often declared that, "We should have won that game." During the game your mind amplified the good plays made by your team and diminished the good plays made by the opposing team. To you it honestly seemed like your guys played the better game, but the scoreboard and game stats said otherwise.
Having spent some time as a radio talk host, I saw this phenomena happen time and again. A listener would call in to take me to task for saying something they didn't like or agree with. I would explain to the caller that I didn't say that and then ask him or her to repeat to me exactly what I said. Without fail, their brain had filtered out or altered part of my comment while reinforcing the part that provoked their passions. Talker Neal Boortz has made a lucrative career playing this game with his audience.
After one radio show, I stopped by the grocery store that afternoon and was approached by a woman I had known many years. She was perplexed at something she had heard me say that morning on air. To her, my comment had been completely out of character of how she perceived me. She became more and more confused as I tried to explain that what I actually said was not what she "heard." Exasperated, she finally accepted my explanation but was still bewildered she had so miscomprehended my original statement.
Now let's talk about , in which I wrote about how some charitable contributions are sometimes not used the way we envision when we make the donation. Most weeks, depending on the topic of my column, I'll receive some reader feedback here on Cartersville Patch and on Facebook. Occasionally the topic will also generate some private email. Last week was one of those weeks.
While a few folks thanked me for having the courage to write what I did, quite a few people completely failed to comprehend my column. One glaring example was the publisher of an area newspaper. This person makes a living dealing with the power and meaning of words, but even she came to a false conclusion about what I had written. She felt so strongly about the topic that she wrote a column in response, saying that she "was so shocked to see an article by a local writer on one website who, in my opinion, was trying to discourage our support of nonprofits...."
After I read her piece, I immediately reread my own column to try and understand how she came to this conclusion, because nowhere did I imply that anyone should stop supporting local charities. In fact, my wife and I have donated 10 percent of our income each year for almost all of our 31 years of married life.
The irony of this is that some of the content of my column was actually inspired by this person's own comments recently posted on Facebook. I was completely supporting her position, but it didn't seem to register with her.
This individual strongly supports the local Bartow County United Way chapter and her Facebook comments highlighted the fact that some larger employers in Bartow County by default send employee payroll deductions to the Metropolitan Atlanta chapter instead of the Bartow County chapter of United Way. The Metropolitan chapter sends no money back to Bartow County nonprofit charities, while the contributions to our local chapter stay here. I echoed this same sentiment in my column and encouraged people to check with their employer and make sure their donations were going to the Bartow chapter of United Way.
However, just preceding this part of my column, I briefly mentioned that several years ago the national United Way organization had come under fire for paying its executives extremely high salaries, and also mentioned this did not involve most local United Way chapters. I placed this in my column to help set up a point I would cover later concerning the American Cancer Society. I can only speculate that when this person read that section, her pro-United Way bias colored her assimilation of the rest of my column.
Later in my piece, I laid out some strong documented criticisms of the American Cancer Society and suggested that we might better serve our community by establishing a local cancer charity so those donations currently going to ACS national offices, could instead be used here in Bartow County. (Please read to understand my basis for this comment). Again, nowhere in my column did I advocate not donating to charity, and nowhere was I critical of our local United Way chapter.
I guess the moral of this story is to some degree we all allow what we see and hear to be colored by our own experiences and worldview. As hard as I try to be open minded, I know I sometimes jump to conclusions too soon. That's why I waited 24 hours after writing this before reassessing the content and finally submitting it. I can't wait to see if someone misinterprets my words this week.