Subjective Reference Points

One reason why we will never be able to perfectly understand other people and the opinions, decisions, and beliefs that other people hold is because we all have different reference points. I cannot be inside your head, I cannot see things from exactly the same angle that you see things, and I cannot have the same background and experiences that you have. Our differing reference points create subjectivity in our lives, and not just in areas that we would all agree don’t have one true correct answer. Even areas where it seems like there should be a single objective fact or reality can be very subjective. We expect to see a lot of subjective variability in terms of our preferences for living in the city versus the country, in preferring private insurance versus state sponsored insurance, or preferring soft versus firm mattresses, but we probably don’t expect to have the same different subjective experiences or preferences for how loud a sound is, how light or dark a shade of gray appears, or the value of a $2 million dollar gambling win.

 

Each of these areas of unexpected subjectivity are discussed by Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. He shows that understanding and predicting subjective experiences in these areas is possible if we understand the different reference points that are in play for each individual. There may be an objective and unchanging fact at the base of the reality each individual experiences, but the experience can nevertheless be subjective. Kahneman writes,

 

“To predict the subjective experience of loudness, it is not enough to know its absolute energy; you also need to know the reference sound to which it is automatically compared. Similarly, you need to know about the background before you can predict whether a gray patch on a page will appear dark or light. And you need to know the reference before you can predict the utility of an amount of wealth.”

 

I don’t want to end up in a point where we say there is no objective reality we can all observe, after all, “a dead body is a dead body, and someone is going to jail,” as a friend who is a federal judge here in Reno, NV once said to me. But I do want to highlight just how much of our world can be interpreted differently based on our reference points. Sounds, colors, and the value we would get from a certain amount of wealth are not obviously subjective, but Kahneman shows just how subjective these areas are in his book. This should make us consider how much our backgrounds, our unique points of view, and the circumstances in which we make our observations shape how we understand the world. A lot of our understandings of reality are context dependent, and that should cause us to pause before we say with absolute certainty that reality is exactly as we have experienced it. We should pause to consider the reference classes which shape and influence how we experienced the world, and how those references might be different than those of other people. We can’t just say that there is one way to interpret and experience everything in the world, we have to accept that how we experience the world will be shaped by many factors that we might not be aware of and might not consider if we don’t slow down to think about the references.

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