Duck or Rabbit, the Evidence! (based on perception and bias)


Can you see the Rabbit and the Duck?

Try turning the screen through 90 degrees – then back again.

Right, fun over, back to the serious stuff. Hands up if you hear this phrase, chanted out at just about every meeting you attend nowadays. It’s a new mantra that started creeping into widespread use about 2 years ago…. now it seems to be everywhere;

“We need evidence to support our decision making/practice/thinking/anything else you can think of….”

Nothing wrong with that statement a first glance, but two things agitate me slightly:

  1. What on earth did we do before the new ‘creed of evidence’? Did we just make things up? I don’t think so. In the world I know gathering ‘evidence’ and using it has always been a big part of everyday business.
  2. (This might sound a bit sceptical….) Many of the people who say, “we need evidence…..” actually mean; “I need only the evidence that supports my decisions” (based on my beliefs, perceptions and bias).

What has Evidence got to do with Rabbits and Ducks? One of the things that occasionally gets used in the ‘evidence’ debate is the Rabbit Duck Index (see graph above).

The people who use it are generally trying to get across the point that evidence is important, but it is also important to recognise which angle you are looking at it from (Rabbit or Duck?). When you link that idea to the fact that; we don’t necessarily collect all of the evidence available, some of it might be incomplete, some of it might be contradictory or ambiguous and there might more than one ‘right’ answer, it’s a complex situation.

Evidence in our complex world is not always binary (yes/no), black or white. There is lots of grey and ambiguity that needs to be recognised. I did touch on this previously when I wrote about The Ladder of Inference and Expert Bias.

IMG_4597The original rabbit / duck illustration (link here) can be traced back to 1892 when it appeared  in a German magazine, Fliegende Blatter.

From there it was picked up by a series of Psychologists who used it in studies of perception.  This Wolfgram Mathworld article has a helpful reference list to many of the studies where it has been used.

My favourite is the study where children shown the picture in the spring (Easter) see the rabbit, whist children shown the image in the autumn (October) see the duck (explain that one….).

The rabbit/duck picture is a really useful illustration that perception is important, but I’m not always sure that the very important point that it makes generally sinks in. The ‘Rabbit Duck Index’ is often dismissed as a party gimmick and then its back to business as normal.

Knowing and Doing are Different Things. Thinking about the better use of evidence, is seems that ‘knowing’ there are different ways of looking at the evidence is an important first step. If you actually recognised there might be a different way of seeing the evidence, you might take those views on board – or at least try an understand them.

This isn’t easy. Smarter people than me have been looking at it for ages. However, it did occur to me that if you learned to think about different points of view at an early age it might help you in later life. When presented with evidence at the Board Room Table you might take a look at the range of views?

This where I bumped into the brilliant Duck! Rabbit! book by Amy Krouse Rosenthal. Basically it’s the Duck or Rabbit conversation, held by two small children, each using the evidence they have available. Have a look at the short video of the book at the end of the post which summarises it beautifully.

From the reader comments on Amazon (here) it appears that the book is being read a lot to 2 and 3 years olds (mostly by grandparents). This might mean we have future generations with a wider understanding of the complexities of ‘evidence’, and are prepared to see it from other perspectives. I hope so.

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. A lot of effort is being directed at collecting and using ‘evidence’ in public services, but not all evidence is equal and it often isn’t ‘black and white’.
  2. We need to understand that people with different perspectives will see things differently and we need to recognise that they might be just as ‘right’ as our own interpretation.
  3. The Duck Rabbit Index is a useful illustration, which could be used in the workplace to raise the issue and help with ‘knowing’ (followed up by the Duck! Rabbit! book video).

Video of the Amy Krouse Rosenthal book: Duck! Rabbit!

Thank you to Olwen Williams (@OlwenOlwen) who provided another perspective on the Duck Rabbit Index Graph. Based upon the available evidence Olwen has suggested an alternative, a Flying Bottle Nose Dolphin. I can see that, it was probably in my mind when I drew it……




About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

4 Responses

  1. This was very well illustrated thank you – a colleague and I published a critique of the evidence-based approach recently the link below is quite long. We’ve been critical of this approach for the last 10 years or so, best wishes Kevin

  2. Steve Martin

    Someone wiser than me says ‘your viewpoint is your standpoint’ (I think it may have been the late Lou Tice – Pacific Institute) – i.e. we tend to take up our positions about issues from how they affect us. This is usually why some of us see evidence of a duck others a rabbit.

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