Predictability and Perception: We Notice What we Want to See

Not long ago, I was thinking about trading in my car for a new one. In the consideration set were several known brands. Through conversations with friends and colleagues, I narrowed my research down to a model per brand.

While I could not remember most cars on the road before my conscious desire to trade in the car, once I began my research, I started noticing those exact models everywhere. They were there before, likely, mixed in with all the cars on the road.

Because I was focusing on them I started seeing all these cars that were invisible before. I was noticing what I wanted to see, in a sense creating a situation where my perception of reality changed what was in front of me.

Another way of saying this is that as people we react not only to the situations as they are, but also, and often primarily, to the way we perceive the situations and to the meaning we assign to these perceptions#.

Why does this matter? Because it has implications to how we make decisions. To make this concept more tangible, let's look at three different examples.

1. Social behavior, which in turn drives culture

Who do we share content with

While it may still hold true that people share the most with family and friends, when we look at the filters we use, increasingly the public selfie culture runs parallel to post-and-destroy movement — we pick and choose channels based on convenience, context, and, frankly, when we do not know any better.

Online helps magnify and extend off line behaviors. Because we have the ability to shape our experience based on who we follow, like, and what we read, we end up being more "like-minded" than we even suspect.

The result? A recent report by the Pew Center and Rudgers University says people are less likely to express their views if they believe they differ from those of their friends, family and colleagues. As reported by the NYT#:

Humans are acutely attuned to the approval of others, constantly reading cues to judge whether people agree with them, the researchers said. Active social media users get many more of these cues — like status updates, news stories people choose to share and photos of how they spend their days — and so they become less likely to speak up.

The tools that were meant to help us create and debate publicly are now the ones that help keep things on the average. And we know all too well how the average person does not exist (or we should).

More indications on how social currency affects behavior.

2. Product design, which in turn influences functionality

I just want to talk
As I was writing this post, I saw a screen grab by Paul Adams# that exemplifies this point. We hear a lot about user experience, personalization, customer-centric service… well, this is where the rubber meets the road for a product to be useful.

What are the trade offs you are making in relationships? It is not just an interface, it is a service delivery experience so it needs to be approached with a service design mindset.

Another example I can think about is force fitting "click and pay" functionality in social networks — like the recent partnership announcement between Twitter and Stripe, a payment startup#.

Some brands with fun items that would fall in the low consideration category may get people to sample or impulse buy for novelty-sake. Everyone else will be discussing how they could make their brand go "selling" (swap for "viral") in social.

Which is why everyone is wrong about influence. Except your customers. We will be revisiting influence at Search Marketing Expo East#.

3. Talent search, which in turn impacts hiring the right people

Digital agencies and top brands alike make this mistake — they assume a hiring version of "if you post it, they will find it." It is quite hard to step away from inside-out thinking and people often tend to go to the same resources they use when a little research and creativity may help find a better solution.

Examples span the gamut, from a.) posting open positions just on their Web site, relying on sheer luck and a top notch brand name, to b.) hoping that posting it everywhere will help spread the word, creating an avalanche of unwanted attention in the process, to c.) going through a search firm or person.

The third option might work — I have plenty of stories of why it does not — if the firm or individual vetting and qualifying leads understands the job. That is hardest at a time when so many are changing rapidly or just plain new. Have you hired a marketing technologist yet? Erica Seidel explains# what that means.

Or d.) your agency, company, brand is star-struck and not creative enough on assembling a good team that in the long run performs better — e.g., Moneyball#.

All to say that the best way to connect with the right people is still word of mouth, especially from the people who already work there or are familiar with the type of organization doing the hiring.

More thoughts on how technology is transforming the career market.


Consciously or unconsciously, we notice what we want to see, and we ignore the obvious at our own peril. Maria Popova# teases out lessons with broader applications in a post about willful blindness:

“the more tightly we focus, the more we leave out” — or, as cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz put it in her remarkable exploration of exactly what we leave out in our daily lives, because “attention is an intentional, unapologetic discriminator.”

The most reliably predictable part of this dance between perception and reality is that we keep ourselves in the dark or we look for love in all the wrong places.


Valeria is an experienced listener. She designs service and product experiences to help businesses rediscover the value of promises and its effect on relationships and culture. She is also frequent speaker at conferences and companies on a variety of topics. Book her to speak here.

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