Which Witch is a Witch? The Power of Perceptual Biases

For many years, I taught at the post-secondary level, mostly in the field of Child and Youth Care (or social pedagogy as it known in Europe).  The first teaching gig I had involved me holding my breath behind the lectern hoping I would pass out, but that is another story for another blog.  One of my favourite parts of teaching was practicum, where my students went out into the professional world and honed their skills with children, youth, families and communities.  My role as the practicum instructor was to visit my students on site and review their progress with their supervisor.  On one such visit, I got to visit an early childcare centre. This was always a joy since my speciality is not the early years but I still delight in their artwork, games and of course, everything from sink taps to tables look like they belong in miniature land.  When I entered the visit, the kids (ages 3-5) were busy with snack time so my student motioned for me to sit at one of the tables with the kids.  I asked about what they were snacking on, what they had played that day and thought I was fitting in just fine, thank you very much!  A child sitting directly across from me had been completely silent amongst her flock of chatterboxes.  But then she spoke:

“Are you a witch?”

I was taken aback.  I do wear a lot of black and technically I could be classified as a lapsed Wiccan, but that seemed a bit advanced for Happy Tippy Toes Day Care.  So I answered:

“No, I am a teacher.”

“No you are not, you are a witch,” she replied with certainty.  She kind of hissed the word “witch” so even though she was 2.5 feet tall, it kinda scared the heck out of me.  I tried again:

“No, I am Nisha’s teacher,” pointing at my student and trying to smile, “I am here for a visit to see if she is good at playing with you.”  Nisha, meanwhile, was busy as most early childcare educators are, juggling plates, zipping zippers, wiping noses and cleaning up spills – all at once, of course.  I don’t know where they get the energy to be honest.  Anyway, I continued to sit at the table and this witch detective continued to methodically eat her gold fish crackers, never taking her eyes off me, lest I whip out a broom or magic wand.

Why am I telling you this story?  This young person demonstrated what we all have – regulatory and perceptual biases that influence how we determine what is happening in our environment, or in the case of this child, what is a threat and what is not.  For our RO DBT clients, teaching about regulatory and perceptual biases is so important that it is introduced in the very first skills class.  We begin with a mindfulness exercise with an inkblot and, as you can imagine, people see very different things.  It might have been interesting at the above snack time to see what other kids thought I was.  Based on their life experience and temperament, I might have been a janitor, a protection worker, a princess, friend or frog given I was sitting on what was supposed to be a tiny toad stool with my knees practically up to my ears.  Back to our RO DBT clients, we teach them about how regulatory and perceptual biases can get in the way of being open, and hence, stifle our capacity to learn and grow.  We ask questions such as:

What you do you do when confronted with a different point of view about something important?

What is your favorite strategy to avoid hearing a different perspective?

Do you think other people know when you use it? What might this tell you about yourself?

If you already believe you know everything about something, will you be more or less open to feedback suggesting you are wrong?

If you believe the world is flat, are you more or less likely to seek out information suggesting that the world is round?

(Lynch, 2018, p. 53)

We also teach our clients (and RO DBT therapists, tee-hee) about confirmation bias, which suggests we are likely to seek out information that conforms to our existing world view, and avoid disconfirming feedback.  If you are reading this and protesting that this never could happen to you –being open minded and all J – then consider what you seek out on the computer, what newspapers you read or even the people you hang out with.  Chances are, there is an element of seeking confirmation in these activities.  And heck, that is ok because we all do it!  But when it becomes calcified and renders us unwilling to hear feedback, it can be a barrier to practicing radical openness.

The practice of radical openness challenges our comfort in confirmation and requires three steps, which are summarized in the cornerstone skill of Flexible Mind DEFinitely:

Flexible Mind DEFinitely

D Acknowledge Distress or unwanted emotion

E Use self- Enquiry to learn

F Flexibly respond with humility

(Lynch, 2018, p.58)

So next time you are in a situation where you are certain you know what is going on, convinced that information/feedback is erroneous (or correct) or cantankerous that others see things differently, step back and ask yourself, how open am I right now? If I practice the Flexible Mind DEFinitely skill, what can I learn and how might this enhance my social connections?  How might I model “humility in action” as Dr. Thomas Lynch describes? And the more important question to ask yourself, is Nicole a teacher or a witch? Your answer, of course, rests with your perceptual bias!

About the author: J. Nicole Little, Ph.D., R.C.C.

Nicole is a therapist specializing in eating disorders and other conditions of overcontrol in Victoria, B.C., Canada.  She has also taught for 13 years at Universities and colleges. Her passions are RO DBT and animal assisted therapy.