Sunday, 29 November 2009

Errors of Perception.

We look out from our position of "self" and take what we see as concrete knowledge of our surroundings and our relationships. Indeed, without assumptions about our environment and the cues we receive from the people around us, it would be very difficult to function at all. We live by core perceptions that hold us together and we modify and change elements around these constants, as necessary.

But sometimes these perceptions are incorrect, we make mistakes, and there are consequences for us and for those around us.I am particularly interested in how and why we make assumptions in regard to the society we experience and our inter-personal relationships and how this impacts on our lives and on society too.

My blogs are an attempt to think about these issues and to try to understand the hidden forces at work in our everyday lives with an eye to fairness and right and justice.

We can understand why there is prejudice or injustice, violence or immorality, but these are not just the "dark side" of our better selves, they emanate from the same source,our human nature.I hope that trying to understand these elements of our functioning self will help us to mitigate the affects of destructive impulses in a constructive sense, but, if only to calm our frustrations and our feelings of defencelessness, thinking this through is eminently worthwhile. In common parlance this is termed "self help" !!!!!

Let`s take an example:

We have seen via the media that social workers have made mistakes when assessing
cases involving children. Some cases of child abuse have been missed, but conversely we know that some cases have been imagined where no abuse is present. How can this happen?

There are two main influences here, the personal, where our personal psychological baggage influences the things we think we perceive, and the group, the part we play in a group dynamic with the people around us.

Now, we might assume that professionals are trained to be objective and have certain criteria by which to ascertain whether there is child abuse or not. We can see here how we immediately follow our acquired assumption that "professionalism" is a safeguard towards correct, unbiased and non-subjective discernment. But the professional process is only dictated by the people who contrive these methods, and the processes and those people are subject to their own personal baggage and their own group position as well!

Let`s take a very ordinary experience: We walk down the street and as we go we assess, as part of an unconscious process, who is a threat and who is not. This assessment is almost instantaneous , we have little control over it and yet it informs us as if it were knowledge and not just a response to all our cues. We certainly do not feel we are hijacked by irrational baggage !!!
So what are these cues and where do they come from?

Well, we carry reflex responses old and new, autonomic fears coming from our development as a species, biological drives, inherited cues from our parents and family and of course cues arising from our own experiences. We also acquire new cues all the time, from people around us and from the media.

Personal Cues:
When a social worker goes to assess a family, they may be trained to be objective, but they are unaware of the part played by their own personal issues and the wider group drive. No amount of training can change this, mitigate it maybe, but not eliminate it. Why? Because, on a personal level, we are not always able to cognise our own cues: If I have been upset by a particular person with particular physical characteristics when I am four years old, I may not recall this, and yet if it is triggered when I interview a parent who happens to carry this characteristic, my objective judgement will be swayed, I will have a negative perception of them and my intellect will try to rationalise my feelings. What can happen here is that the observer, the social worker in this case, will align their subjectivity with their objectivity, that is, they will find a rational, observable reason to doubt the parent, not realising that they are doing this. This then can be passed to colleagues as observable according to their "possible child abuse" criteria, and will assume the power of "proof" against the parent. Thus, the idea that a particular parent is guilty begins upon a cue that is not conscious and takes on all the colours of objective truth as it grows from one professional to another.

This, of course, can work in reverse, a social worker may have a positive cue related to a certain characteristic in a person they are assessing, yet this person is abusing a child. The positive cue will mask the objective judgement and once again the intellect will justify this perception.

Group Dynamics:
In the U.K. there have been such huge mistakes in overlooking cases of child abuse, such that cases of mistaken abuse will inevitably rise as social workers desperately try to avert error. Many families have been victim to this and their children have been removed.
There is serious contradiction in pursuing child abuse if innocent parents and their children are persecuted, just as in the name of justice, it is not acceptable for innocent people to be jailed for crimes they did not commit. Yet social workers are making mistakes out of fear that they will overlook a case of abuse, a death will occur, and they will be held responsible for it. Individual social workers are trying to protect themselves by rigorously pursuing the group drive to find child abuse, and because they are afraid of the wider group, society,if they should not notice a real case of abuse, they can make mistakes.

So a social worker mindful of "not making a mistake" will view a family differently from a person observing without a personal fear; the fear they have directly plays upon what they "see". We can observe this mechanism too, if we consider the phenomenon of looking for abusers as part of a group need to outcast misfits,deviants and unacceptables in society: Good guys and bad guys. People who have a "crusade" to find deviants of any sort are not able to be rational at the outset. Here, they are part of a group with a crusade to stamp out child abuse and by their position cannot be balanced or objective. If we set out to find something negative in someone we are apt to perceive it, just like any paranoia-induced perception, still more so if we are in a group intoxication, a group with a mission, all of whose members are primed to seek out abuse. In such a group we can lose much of ourselves, we can abdicate perceptions that we would have if not directed by others, and we can ignore our better judgment in the pursuance of our group-induced personal needs..

But what is it about a group that implants ideas and propels group loyalties? Well, we get approval, protection, a comfortable familiarity from being in a group. We are persuaded by group ideas because we need as human beings to belong and feel accepted and needed; if we don`t conform, we lose this. Being an insider gives us a sense of well-being and fulfilment. Leaders within groups use strategies to make the group stick together, they promote ideas of "us and them", draw us in close and reward us when we gratify them. Being in a group with a mission to stamp out child abuse is a worthy position, but as such it necessarily creates delusions of superiority and grandeur and it is the very "we are saving children against abusers" that causes an inability to think about whether there is really child abuse or not. The group desires results.. and the workers in the group want to gain approval for finding it. Because we crave this approval we are seduced by it and this distorts our perceptions.

So with just a preliminary look at the forces at play behind the scenes in such a situation as requires professional judgement, we see just how unsafe our perceptions are. With influences from our own psychological makeup and the imposition of group demands, it is almost impossible to be professionally objective.

I do believe, however, that awareness can change things and achieve a better society for us all.


  1. Regarding the notion that we have our own inbuilt prejudices: I think this is true. A simple example (and I think there have been studies about this) is that typically, in the States, anyway, if one is walking down the street and sees a black man coming toward them, there is an instant fear that the black man will assault them. This is apparently true even if the one walking down the street is him/herself black!

    I think your argument is basically sound. I would like to hear more about specific cases where there have been false accusations of child abuse, how they were brought to light and how they were ultimately dealt with.

    Also, your last line is tantalizing---do you see a practical way to institute greater awareness? After all, social workers do sometimes uncover genuine cases of child abuse so we don't want to strip them of all their training, right??

  2. Thanks very much for your comments.

    Regarding false allegations of abuse I would just like to emphasise the role of the group in reinforcing a mistake:When a professional has matched certain criteria with the family they have examined, deciding that there is at least suspicion of child abuse, it is very difficult to unwind.Having voiced even a suspicion, means that should action not be taken, any possible future problems in this family would point to negligence on the part of the social services. So that out of fear the accusation cannot be backtracked.Also, having decided there is abuse, we as human beings tend to believe what we have told ourselves.The idea becomes the reality.

    The other factor is group need: The group is primed to find child abuse and is reluctant to let go.

    There are many case of mistaken abuse where children are removed from innocent families, never to return.It is almost impossible for a parent to prove their innocence against a subjective charge against them. One case in the headlines recently was of a boy removed and adopted out because he had many broken bones, interpreted as physical abuse, yet much later found to be a medical condition. The adoption though, is deemed to be irreversible.

    What can we do about these mistakes?
    I would see someone outside the system checking assessments of families as being a measure towards protecting children and families. This would have to be someone with very considerable awareness and definitely not someone part of the professional group involved. I would find it difficult to see, given the dynamics involved in groups, that someone from within the system, could be aware enough or trained enough to deal with these issues.