The eye of the beholder

Seeing is believing, right?

We assume if everyone receives the same message, unaltered, they will come to the same understanding.

Of course, in a lot of professional communicators’ experience, that’s not the case. When the feedback is collected, interpretations from the message can be all over the place. Did that mean the message wasn’t communicated as well as it should have? It’s possible. It’s also possible everything was done correctly and it was human nature, something no one controls, that got in the way of understanding.

Science has been studying communication and how people perceive and understand it for over 70 years. As early as 1944, studies were producing startling findings that undermined the theory that communication was a “magic bullet” that could replicate meaning easily in any person.

In the 1944 ground-breaking “Experimental Study of Apparent Behavior” conducted by Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel at Massachusetts College, results showed that personal experience and memory played a powerful role in creating meaning with even the most abstract information.

The study involved three groups of undergraduate women who watched a short animated film involving three moving shapes (a big triangle, a little triangle and a circle) and a box that opened and closed.

The first group was instructed to write down what happened in the film. The second group was instructed to treat the triangles and circle as characters in a story and the large box as a house. They were then asked a series of question to help them define a narrative. The third group watched the film in reverse and were also allowed to treat the shapes as characters, but with a smaller list of questions parsed from the first set.

Nearly all participants in all three groups, whether instructed or not, were able to perceive a story in the film. The shapes were characters, the big box was a house or a room in a house, and the movements showed a conflict with a resolution. Typical stories that came out included:

  • Two men fighting over a woman
  • A husband confronting his wife and her lover
  • A father, his daughter and her boyfriend
  • A mother punishing her two bickering children
  • A witch and two children

The third group who saw the film in reverse came out with more complex stories that included philosophical and social-economic elements:

  • Man comes in conflict with Woman and Evil (a variation of the Genesis story)
  • An imprisoned man fights another inmate with a guard/warden intervening
  • Two parents argue about how to discipline their child

No matter how abstract the information given, people applied meaning to it. They drew upon memories, previous experiences, previous knowledge, biases and other stories they knew to “fill in the blanks.” In this particular study, romantic or family relationships were prominent, and a lot of gender biases were assigned. The triangles were often masculinized while the circle was feminized. Conventional power dynamics (who had it, who didn’t, who usurped it) played a large part in forming narrative.

As communicators, knowing an audience means more than their demographic (age range, ethnicities, income levels, etc.) It’s also knowing how they have behaved previously with other communication campaigns, and how they may behave now. It’s knowing their shared experiences, their shared perceptions and biases, and the kind of previously known information and experiences they will draw upon and apply to new information that is being given. It’s knowing something about the human filters they are likely to apply to your intended and unintended messages.

What does this mean for communicators?

When developing communication strategies, be sure to research your audience’s previous behaviours and understand how those can help or hinder their ability to understand and take action on your communication.

  • It may mean modifying your messages – emphasizing some points over others, or coming at the same information from a different perspective.
  • It may mean different distribution channels or different delivery mechanisms (i.e. perhaps it’s not you who should be delivering this message).

Remember, even though people hear the same message, how they understand it varies from person to person, and group to group.