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How Do You See It?

Ambiguous figures teach unambiguous lessons about perspective taking.

By William Ely Hill United States Library of Congressis
Source: By William Ely Hill United States Library of Congressis

When and how do we invite others to explore our positions? When do we go through the effort to truly understand theirs? Why do we sometimes change our own views while other times we try to persuade others to change theirs? These questions framed a class I taught this semester titled I’m right. You’re wrong. At the heart of the class was the assumption that different people see the world differently–sometimes very differently.

One day we were slated to discuss Part II of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. The thesis of this part of the book is that people see moral issues differently not because they are uneducated, unmotivated, or otherwise flawed, but because there is more to morality than care and harm. Haidt likens our sense of morality to our sense of taste: both are informed by multiple receptors through which we experience—indeed, perceive—the world.

Moments before class it occurred to me that I might be able to use ambiguous figures—like the one pictured here—as an unemotional launch point for a conversation about how reasonable people can experience the same thing in discernibly different ways. In other words, I thought the figures would make visible a truism of our social world.

When I arrived to class, I tossed a pile of handouts onto the table by the door next to a little sign that read, “Please take handout.” Each handout contained the same four ambiguous figures, which I had hurriedly copied moments before walking into the classroom. As my 18 students filed in, they obliged the little sign. Then something spectacular happened.

Without any additional instruction or information, the room erupted in discussion. Students huddled around the sheets, soon realizing that others saw different things in the figures. I heard them asking each other questions like, “Wait. What do you see?” And, “Tell me how you see it.” What unfolded before me was exactly the sort of dialogue I fear is sorely missing about the important challenges we face as a nation. I saw genuine curiosity about others’ views. I saw deliberate effort to learn from others. My arms tickled with goosebumps.

When I pulled the students together for a broader discussion, I asked, “Tell me what just happened here." One student raised his hand to explain his experience. He said, “My partner and I were looking at this figure in the bottom right.” Naturally, I looked to the bottom right of the page in front of me so that I would be properly oriented for his observation. He continued, “I thought this was an old lady and my partner saw a young girl.” Realizing that the figure in the bottom right of my page had absolutely no resemblance to the old woman/young girl figure he was describing, I smiled again; another teachable moment had just revealed itself. “Hold up,” I interrupted. Then I asked all the students to raise their hands if the figure in the bottom right of their page was not the ambiguous figure of the women. About a third of the students raised their hands. Quite literally, our orientations to the discussion differed. Imagine how fruitless the conversation could have been had we not realized this important variance and modified our approach.

I continued by asking the students to think about real conversations out in the real world about real issues: How do we go about discovering when our orientations to—and assumptions about—an issue differ from those around us? How do we slow down the impulse to assume that others see the world—and the literal and metaphorical ambiguous figures contained within—similarly?

Students shared how hard it was to see the figures in other ways—and how helpful it was to have a friend coach them through the landmarks in the figures (“This is the nose...these are wrinkles.”) They wanted to learn from each other. They knew the other person had clues to the problem that they didn’t already possess. They saw a shared problem to be explored.

Not surprisingly, they also talked about the difficulty of switching frames. One student noted the frustration she felt trying—and failing despite real effort—to see in the ambiguous figure an image that seemed painfully apparent to others. Once she was able to see the alternate interpretation, she struggled to hold onto that view, finding her original vision quickly overtook the new one.

Seeking out and truly trying to understand another person's perspective takes effort. It takes curiosity. And it takes the humility to admit that we haven’t cornered the perceptual market. Before I left class that day, I scrawled a note to myself on the first page of the notebook that I always carry with me. The note reads, “Remember to ask: How do you see it?”


Haidt, J. (2013). The Righteous Mind. New York, NY: Vintage Books.