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The Blue Dot Effect

Blue Dot Effect
We Are Conditioned To See More Negatives

We all make dozens of judgments every day, from deciding whether our clothes match to figuring out whether the dog down the street is a threat. Our decision making and assessments are not based on any hard and fast rules. Most of them are instinctive based on some subconscious triggers.

This weekend, I got an insight into our decision making biases when I came across an interesting psychology experiment that Researchers at Harvard University conducted.

The experiment involved Researchers asking participants to identify “Blue” Dots from a series of a thousand Dots ranging in color from very blue to very purple. These Dots would flash on a computer screen one after the other. Initially, for Dots shown on the screen, the participants identified the color pretty accurately. Roughly half of the dots were blue, and half were purple.

However, progressively researchers made sure the frequency of Blue dots reduced dramatically. Strangely, the participants reacted by selecting as Blue Dots those that were shades of purple- their classification of Blue expanded in proportion to the decrease in the Blue Dots on the screen. In essence, as the occurrence of blue dots decreased, the definition of blue expanded. Prevalence affected the judgment of the respondents. 

The researchers termed this phenomenon “prevalence-induced concept change.”

In further experiments, the researchers found the same effect when participants had to identify aggressive faces from a group that ranged from ‘very threatening’ to ‘not very threatening,’ and again when separating unethical research proposals from ethical ones.

Even when the occurrence of “problems” (threatening faces/unethical proposals) went down, participants began to misread friendly and neutral faces as threatening and ethical proposals as fraudulent.

The Blue Dot effect suggests that our mind is conditioned to look for threats and issues, regardless of how safe or comfortable our environment is. The better things get, the more we nitpick on even the smallest of issues. The size of the problem does not determine our emotional reactions to our problems. Instead, our minds simply amplify our problems to fit the degree of stress we expect to experience. Success and material progress do not necessarily relax us or make us feel better about our future.

There are many examples of this. 

  •  In the pre-Uber/Grab days, we were willing to wait for 30 min for a taxi to come. Today we complain if there is a delay of even 5 min.
  • Wifi speed was a fraction of what we experience today. Yet, we quibble and complain that the Wifi is slow if a page load takes a few seconds more than usual.
  • In the days of snail mail, we were willing to wait for a response for 30 days. Today with email, we complain if we don’t get a response in a few hours. Convenience has improved but satisfaction has not.
  • A decade back, someone was living in a small apartment and very contented. Today, the same family lives in a Villa with a much higher living standard and feels less satisfied than before. 

The Blue Dot Effect, in many ways, represents our predicament. Most of us are leading more comfortable lives than we ever did. Yet, we are constantly griping with a sense of dissatisfaction. We don’t seem satisfied in our present state of relative abundance( compared to our past).

This is the Blue Dot Effect playing out in our lives. We are amplifying the negatives and glossing out the positives, out of past conditioning. Recognize this and ease up. Our life if good and the world is not so bad, after all !! 

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