One powerful influence on our perceptions is our expectations. A well-known example of this can be seen in the image at right. The same ambiguous symbol can be interpreted in very different ways, depending on the context. Read vertically, the symbol in the middle of the picture can be easily read as the capital letter B, while read horizontally the symbol can be easily read as the number 13. Neither answer is wrong; both interpretations are correct within their context. But the context makes all the difference.
How does this apply to the Klansman seen at Oberlin College? There were at several contextual factors that led the eyewitness to associate the figure with the Klan. Most importantly, the campus had recently experienced a string of events characterized as hate crimes, with flyers and graffiti targeting African-Americans, gays, and Jews appearing on campus.
The events were widely reported and triggered much discussion on campus about the presence of hate groups. Most bald men are not skinheads, and racists can come in any race, gender, or color. But the most identifiable hate group - the only one with an image that is unmistakably associated with intolerance - is the Ku Klux Klan and their distinctive hoods and robes.
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Secondly, the location played a role in the misidentification: The white-clad figure was not seen outside a local pizza place or library, but instead outside the Afrikan Heritage House, the building on campus most closely associated with African-Americans. It's unlikely that if the same woman had been seen outside a campus synagogue she would have been interpreted as a member of the Klan.
Then there's the fact that the eyewitness probably didn't know exactly what an actual KKK outfit looks like. Real Klan robes have a distinctive, specific cut to them, and typically a cross emblem on the front. The eyewitness only caught a glimpse of the person, in low light and early in the morning. Psychological studies have shown that under such conditions, the human mind is very poor at accurately perceiving, remembering, and reporting even basic elements of the experience.
Our brains often "fill in" details with what we expect to see –not necessarily what we actually see - and we tend to bias our reports accordingly. Thus a person wrapped in, or even carrying, a light-colored blanket can become a Klan outfit.
Though the sighting remains under investigation and it is possible that a lone hooded Klansman was seen past midnight walking on the Oberlin campus, it seems much more likely that the report was simply an eyewitness error.
Examples like this help remind us that sincere, otherwise credible eyewitnesses can often be influenced by many factors, including what they expect to see. The idea that people often incorrectly see, remember, and report what they experience is not merely theory but a proven fact. There are over 2,000 published scientific studies demonstrating it. By some estimates, as many as 1/3 of eyewitness identifications in criminal cases are wrong, and nearly 200 people who were convicted of crimes based on positive eyewitness identifications were later exonerated through DNA evidence.
Photo: Memorial Arch and building at Oberlin College. Layne Kennedy/CORBIS.