Oberlin College cancelled classes based on a report that an individual was seen wearing a KKK-hood.

It turned out that the mystery figure likely was a woman in a blanket.

As we wait for further details
 as to who was behind hate-graffiti in the weeks prior to the dramatic school closure, and what their motivations were, I wanted to share some observations from a scientific perspective.

Discovery News writer Benjamin Radford explores the psychological reasons the student at Oberlin who made the sighting may have jumped to the conclusion that the drapped figure was dressed in Klan regalia instead of considering alternative explanations (like a toga from an “Animal House” celebration):

One powerful influence on our perceptions is our expectations. A well-known example of this can be seen in the image …

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.

Radford’s review provides further explanations for the confusion:

..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. …

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.

Based on Radford’s analysis, it would not be surprising to hear more “reports” of suspicious characters, as expectations have been created.

In an atmosphere like Oberlin, what you see is not always what you get.

And as we know from a prior Saturday Night Card Game, what you think you heard is not always what you heard.

It’s worth noting that Michelle Malkin has covered the history of dubious hate crime hoaxes at Oberlin, her alma mater.

One has to wonder to what extent the pressures at a progressive institution like Oberlin to be race-consious contribute not only to visual misperceptions, but to the willingness of some students to create incidents and events for the purpose of proving what they believe to be true about racism in society.