Switching Gestalts

A gestalt switch is when we change the framework we use to organize our perceptions and it fundamentally changes the meaning of what we perceive. Probably the best example is the popular old woman/young woman illusion. Seen one way, the drawing looks like an old hag, but when seen another way, it appears as a beautiful young woman.

Studies have shown that what is currently in our minds determines how we interpret the drawing. If we’re thinking about the perils of growing old, we’ll on average see the old woman.  But if we’re focused on the joys of youth and beauty, it’s the young woman that will appear.

Switching gestalts isn’t just a curiosity. It illustrates a basic principle governing how our minds work. We see what we believe, attending to information that supports our view and ignoring any that is in conflict.

The game of college football is a great example of gestalts at work. A well-executed strategy is a thing of beauty. From a bird’s eye view, its choreography rivals ballet. The athletic ability of the individual players can be a marvel to behold. The team spirit is infectious.

But football is also a horribly brutal game. The players are coached to hit hard, so that they knock loose the ball or take a player out of the action. Every game is marked by injuries.  When a player is lying on the field and not moving, the frame shifts and the game is no longer fun to watch.

Yet every weekend, I tune in to watch my alma mater, the University of Michigan. When the team wins, as irrational as it sounds, it seems to affirm my identity. My years in Ann Arbor were transformational and have informed my life and work. My liberal arts education taught me to respect intelligence, and it taught me the importance of human values, none more basic than the imperative to treat people with respect.

This has been a controversial period for the team.  A new coach, Rich Rodriquez, was hired from the outside last year and there were some contractual issues that cast a pall on his departure from West Virginia. This year opened with the news that he was involved in a failed real estate deal with an accused felon. Then just before the first game, the coach was accused by six Michigan players of violating NCAA rules on the number of hours of practice allowed per week.

But Michigan played brilliantly in its opening game and the sportscasters calling the game suggested that the allegations were just sour grapes by a few disaffected players. As I watched my team win, it seemed a plausible explanation to me. And, of course, West Virginia would not be happy about losing its coach, and how could he be responsible for the actions of his business partner.

The team didn’t do as well against Iowa in the sixth week and the precocious quarterback Tate Forcier struggled. After a particularly difficult series of plays, Forcier was benched and the television cameras captured Rodriquez going up one side of him and down the other.  It was then that the gestalt switched.

When the Michigan coach bullied his quarterback, he offended those very values that I associate with my years at the school. As a result, the real estate deal looked even more questionable and the allegations of NCAA rules violations more credible. The coach, I concluded with newfound clarity, wasn’t a very nice person, so everything he was involved in became suspect.

But it goes beyond the issue of the coach’s values to his intelligence. Tate Forcier is an obviously skilled and dedicated quarterback. In what universe could it possibly make sense to bully him? Is he going to be more motivated as a result? Will his judgment improve?

Not according to brain science. The only thing that’s going to happen is that his amygdala will key the release of cortisol, slowing down Forcier’s brain, narrowing his vision, and making his judgment worse. The coach’s aggression will summon up aggression on Forcier’s part, creating precisely the opposite kind of relationship high performance depends on.

It seems that Rodriquez has a rather skewed perception of human relationships. It isn’t surprising that the gestalt that would lead him to bully a player would also lead to a business partnership with a man of questionable character, to a less than congenial departure from his former school, and to a broken relationship with half a dozen of his players.

He lives in a world where hitting hard is a virtue, even when it makes no sense.

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