Trayvon Martin is a Victim of Selective Perception

04/12/2012 06:21 pm ET | Updated Jun 11, 2012

"We don't see things as they are, we see things as we are," wrote French diarist Anais Nin. This is not just true of George Zimmerman, the Florida man who shot and killed teen Trayvon Martin -- it is true of all of us. How we see a situation is determined by the beliefs -- the perceptual paradigm -- through which we view the world. In other words, "I see it when I believe it" -- not the other way around.

Thomas Kuhn documented this phenomenon of the power of beliefs to influence our perception in his groundbreaking book, "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions." Kuhn explained how a scientist's perceptual paradigm can have a significant effect on how he perceives the results of his research. Time and again, Kuhn demonstrated how experimental evidence that does not support a scientist's hypothesis is sometimes discounted as an aberration - or perhaps not even seen at all! Disconfirming results can be literally invisible to a researcher who is looking for something else. In other words, a scientist's theories and beliefs can have a significant effect on how he perceives the results of scientific investigations.

This phenomenon is known as "selective perception" - and we all have it, whether we realize it or not. Simple example: You buy a new car, a cool hybrid car that you love. As you drive it for the first few days and weeks, you begin to notice similar hybrid cars everywhere you go. Question: Did all those people go out and buy their hybrids the same day you did? Answer: Of course not. They were there all along -- you just didn't notice them before because they weren't relevant to your personal experience. That particular car simply wasn't on your perceptual radar until you bought one.

Here's a personal example: For a number of years I had a serious concern about unleashed dogs in my neighborhood. I was afraid they'd get hit by cars; I was afraid that they might attack me or my small dog; and I was afraid that they'd kill my cats because I'd already lost three cats to unleashed dogs. (Notice the role that fear often plays in shaping selective perception.) Over time, I began to wonder, "Why do all these unleashed dogs seem to find their way to ME?" Then I realized why: it was selective perception at work. I brought it on myself: I saw so many unleashed dogs because they were on my mind, I worried they are dangerous, and I was afraid about my pets' safety. In other words, I was always concerned about unleashed dogs, so of course I noticed them everywhere I went!

We can see a similar, but more serious form of selective perception at work in George Zimmerman, who had a serious concern about crime in his neighborhood -- so much so that he went looking for trouble on his nightly Neighborhood Watch patrols. His history of frequent calls to 911 demonstrate that he was constantly noticing "suspicious" people. Why? Because "bad guys" were front and center in his perceptual radar all the time. George Zimmerman was apparently so blinded by his selective perception that he saw trouble where there was none ... and Trayvon Martin is dead as a result.

"If your only tool is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail," according to psychologist Abraham Maslow. I would add: "If your only tool is a gun, you tend to see every kid in a hoodie as a criminal."