Visual Thinking Psychological Filters

As we go about our daily lives we are bombarded every second with two million bits of information, that — under normal circumstances — would completely overwhelm our senses and make it extremely difficult — if not impossible — to make sense of anything in our external environment.

Given the fact that the conscious brain can only pay attention to about 134 bits of the two million bits of information that are coming at us per second…

  • Is it any wonder that we don’t always get the entire message?
  • Is it any wonder that we don’t always see things from the same perspective as somebody else?
  • Is it any wonder that we sometimes find it difficult to understand or fully grasp the ideas that another person is trying to present us with?
  • Is it any wonder that we often only see a mirror reflection of our own personal reality and mental model of the world? 😉

In order to cope-with and manage the incredible amount of information that is flying at us every second, we naturally apply a filtering mechanism that effectively deletes, distorts and generalizes this information — allowing us to make sense of the world around us.

People will Delete, Distort and Generalize Your Visuals

You might be wondering how all this applies to visual thinking. Well, this filtering mechanism works 24/7, constantly deleting irrelevant information, distorting other pieces of information, and making generalizations and assumptions about the world around us. [see: unhelpful thinking styles]

Visual Deletion

We delete information that simply does not fit-in with our mental models of the world. Here, we selectively pay attention to certain aspects of what is presented before us, and ignore other aspects all-together.

Visual Distortion

We distort information that simply does not fit-in with our mental models of the world. Here, we make misrepresentations of reality mistaking one thing to mean something else, and as a result the entire purpose and meaning of the visual message you are trying to convey is lost into oblivion.

Visual Generalization

We generalize information in order to make it fit into our mental models of the world. Here, we basically draw global conclusions about something that is based on personal experience. We are in essence creating associations with prior knowledge and information in order to interpret what we are seeing (experiencing) in the moment.

The three-headed dragon of deletion, distortion and generalization are unfortunately unavoidable consequences of being human. Moreover, they are filters that we must account for when we are communicating our message visually to others. For this very reason it’s critical that you present your visuals in a way that is consistent with people’s mental models — ensuring that your visuals are simple and familiar — utilizing concepts, metaphors and analogies that people can relate with and clearly understand.

You won’t always hit the nail on the head when it comes to applying this principle. However, it’s better to try, then not having tried at all. 🙂

What about people’s values, beliefs and memories?

As mentioned above, when someone sees and tries to interpret a visual you have created, they will naturally delete, distort and generalize this information in a way that fits with their mental models of the world — their understanding of reality. Further to this, it’s also important to note the role that values, beliefs and memories play in this process. We will discuss these in detail within the next post.

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