Illustration of several purple, green, white, and black circles; they appear to be moving

Communicative Illusions – The Testing Community’s Affliction


Reading Time: 6 minutes


TL;DR: Why do testers keep falling out with one another?  Perhaps because of communicate illusions.  A communicative illusion is like an optical illusion – a fixed thing that appears to change, be multiple things, or be something completely different. They are influenced by the actual words we use and how we use them, and how others perceive our output, taking in to consideration their own experience, knowledge, emotions, culture – all of which we cannot control.



As it says on my About page, “I don’t like when it looks like shizz about to go down between testers on Twitter”. Or between anyone, anywhere. It makes me really uncomfortable and, in my opinion, gives the whole testing community a bad rep. Are we all just children that can’t play nicely together? No wonder some think the testing profession is looked down upon.


But why does it keep happening? I’ve seen many testing Twitter spats since I joined Twitter in April, and I don’t even go on that much. I think a lot of it has to do with communication (I know, I’m such a ground breaker). To expand – it’s about the actual words we use and how we use / say them; and then it’s about how people perceive that, taking in to consideration their own experience, knowledge, assumed knowledge, emotions, personal connection, culture and more – all of which we cannot control.


These pieces can come together to form what I’m calling “communicative illusions”©®™ (I own that term now, don’t use it without crediting me, or else ( joke)).


A communicative illusion is like an optical illusion – a fixed thing that appears to change, be multiple things, or be something completely different.


Of course, this is affliction is not exclusive to the testing community, but we’re definitely suffering.  To illustrate different types of communicative illusions, and for fun, I’ve used some common optical illusions for comparison.



1. Turn that frown upside down



Optical illusion: The face is upside down, but the mouth and eyes are the right way up. At first, we don’t realise that it’s odd because our minds want to see something familiar, and humans see faces everywhere (like that pile of clothes that looks like a creepy old man is watching you in the dark). Upon closer examination, reality is obvious.


Communicative illusion: This can be likened to confirmation bias. I believe what I believe, and I look out for things that confirm those beliefs. Maybe you don’t agree with me, but it sounded like you might, so that’s good enough!



2. From where I’m standing



Optical illusion: Are you looking at this man face-on or from the side? If you use the eye and ear areas as clues, you might say face-on. But if you look at the nose and mouth areas, you’re more likely to say side-on.


Communicative illusion: This is about using different contexts and experiences to see things from a different angle. Two people might hear the exact same statement, but use different clues to interpret it (whether taken from what was actually said or elsewhere) and potentially come up with different results.



3. A different animal



Optical illusion: Duck or rabbit? The section on the left can be seen either as a duck’s beak or a rabbit’s ears.


Communicative illusion: When you’re trying to say one thing, but it’s been picked up as something completely different: “How did you get that from what I said?!” Then they explain it: “Oh, I see what you mean… That’s not what I meant.”



4. What are you trying to say?



Optical illusion: The first thing I always see in this is a young woman turning away, so we see the left side of her face. The black part at the bottom is like furs across her shoulders, and she’s wearing a choker necklace. It always takes me time and effort to see the old woman. The white triangle at the bottom is her chin and the horizontal black line above that is her mouth, with the white part up and to the left of that being her (very big) nose. Which did you see first? Is it easy for you to see both?


Communicative illusion: Perhaps most interpret your message as intended, but others really struggle to make out what your standpoint is, let alone (dis)agree with it. Or reversed – few correctly guess what you’re trying to say and most interpret your message in a different way. Was your message / method clear enough? Can you see why it was misinterpreted?



5. You spin me right round, baby



Optical illusion: This is a static image, but the way it’s composed means that if you move your eyes around to absorb different parts of it, the circles appear to move counter-clockwise. It’s actually quite difficult to look at.


Communicative illusion: Are you talking lots but not saying much? Are you making statements without any explanation / expansion? Is your argument poorly structured, cluttered or containing conflicting ideas? Good luck getting anyone to keep up with you – they’re probably too dizzy!



6. Read between the lines



Optical illusion: This elephant’s feet don’t match up with what appears to be its legs… I thought I knew what this image was, but now I’m not sure!


Communicative illusion: For the most part, your message is clear, but is there something you’re not saying directly? What did you mean by that comment? Do I sense some passive aggression?



7. I can’t see past it



Optical illusion: This one really gets me. Squares A and B are the exact same colour but, because of the other shapes and shading, square A looks darker than B. The big overlapping square on the left proves that A and B are the same colour (see this more clearly by covering A or B) but when I see them both together, they always look different!


Communicative illusion: You’ve shown me outside evidence that what you’re saying is correct but, until I experience it for myself, I just can’t see past my existing experiences / biases enough. I know there’s a high chance you’re right, but I still don’t agree with you.



8. Mind in the gutter



Optical illusion: This is a real life optical illusion – it’s a drawing of a jellyfish I did recently, but I didn’t realise that it really looks like something else (ahem, I won’t tell you what) until I’d already finished! But it was done by then, in permanent, waterproof ink, and it was too late to change it.


Communicative illusion: This is like listening back to a recording of yourself, or re-reading something you wrote previously and realising very quickly (out of your original, focussed context of concentrating on what you actually meant to say) that it comes across very differently from what was intended.



I’m sure there are lots of other optical illusions that help demonstrate communicative illusions. Please share them!


Did you know audio illusions exist too?  Check out this ASAP Science video to learn more.

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