A Few of the Many Ways We Distort Reality
Thinking we are right in our perceptions may be an illusion.
Posted August 30, 2012 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
One of the choices you have when faced with a problem is to change your perception of the problem. People sometimes resist altering their perceptions, believing they are right in what they see, hear, and remember. The truth is that your perceptions are often inaccurate, particularly in emotionally charged situations. So one way of being more open to changing your perceptions is to consider the ways in which your perceptions may be inaccurate.
1. How you focus your attention affects your perceptions.
When you have an idea in your mind, you tend to look for evidence that supports that idea and not pay attention to evidence that says the idea isn’t accurate. This is called confirmation bias. If you believe you are lucky whenever you wear your red sweatshirt, you are likely to focus on the times that is true and discount the times you were lucky when you weren’t wearing the shirt and when you weren’t lucky when wearing the shirt. Democrats will look for evidence they are right and Republicans are wrong, and vice versa. You tend to look for and pay attention to evidence that supports your beliefs.
So one way of changing your perception is to check the evidence. Is the way you see the situation factual? Find a way to count or otherwise test out your thoughts in a more objective way. Maybe your brother actually spends as much time talking with you as he does your older sister. Maybe your husband puts his clothes away one out of three times instead of never.
2. Most people don’t like uncertainty, so they classify people and experiences into categories. People also learn to associate outcomes with cues when they may not be related.
If a sexy redhead wearing tight pants and stilettos flirts with your husband and ignores you, you may tend to be suspicious of the next woman you meet who wears high heels. People tend to believe that when people are similar in one way, they are likely to be similar in other ways, and this is often not the case.
Not only that, but because you have the idea that she is going to behave a certain way, you may be overly sensitive to any actions on her part that support that view (confirmation bias).
In addition, you may have learned to associate attractive redheads with being abandoned or teased. You may or may not be aware of the reason for your immediate fear, dislike, and distrust of redheads wearing heels. Either way, it will influence your perception of the person.
Be aware that humans tend to group and classify people and interactions in ways that aren’t correct. People can respond emotionally to subtle cues, such as the sounds or lights or smells, without any awareness of their emotions coloring their thoughts. Mindfulness can help you be aware of your reactions and pause to consider all factors before responding.
3. Your first perception affects your later perceptions and decisions.
In some cases, buying a car is a good example of how this works. The sticker price for the car is $25,000, but the salesman gets you a special deal. You can drive off the lot for $20,000. At this point, $20,000 looks great. What a bargain. This is called the anchoring effect. Your belief in the car’s value is anchored at $25,000.
If you “anchored” at a reasonable cost, that would be okay. But you don’t. A couple of researchers (Ariely) looked at the anchoring effect by having students bid for items in an auction. They held up a bottle of wine, a textbook, or a cordless trackball and described how wonderful the item was. Then each student wrote down the last two digits of their social security number. The digits represented the price of the auction items. If the last two digits were 33, then the textbook was $33. If the last two digits were 15, then the wine was $15. After writing down the pretend price, the students bid for the items.
The students who had high social security numbers paid up to 346 percent more than those with low numbers.
When you have negative reactions to situations or to yourself, how much is an anchoring effect influencing your view? For example, if your first experience with learning or going to therapy was negative, think about how that might influence your later experiences. If your first experience with your neighbor was negative, then maybe that has colored your later interactions. That saying about the power of first impressions seems to have some truth.
4. If you imagine an event occurring, your view of the likelihood of that event actually occurring increases.
If you worry and ruminate about awful events, such as your spouse cheating on you, you are also increasing your sense of how likely it is that the awful event will occur. That, of course, will add to your misery, though it’s only a change in your perception.
Stopping rumination is difficult. If you ruminate, consider that your perception of the likelihood of the dreaded event actually occurring is skewed. Consider letting the ruminating thought pass through. Perhaps replace it with visualizing yourself behaving effectively with problems that come your way.
5. You don’t see all that happens right in front of your eyes.
Would you believe that you could be talking with someone about checking out a video and not notice that a different person brings you the video (e.g. http://www.theinvisiblegorilla.com)? You often don’t notice major details in your environment. You miss information. So when you are upset about an interaction or a situation, consider that maybe you don’t have all the facts. It’s at least a possibility.
6. Sometimes making a decision that you aren’t the kind of person who does something helps you to stop doing that behavior.
Deciding that you aren’t the kind of person who eats sweets or who smokes will help you change your behavior. It’s like changing your perception of who you are can help you make different decisions.
Consider how your view of yourself could affect your perceptions. If you perceive yourself as a caring person, you might discount others’ complaints about you being selfish, because that’s not who you are. If you view yourself as an angry person, then you may respond with anger in an automatic way without checking to see if that is what you are actually feeling.
Being mindful of your emotions and actions and the effect of your actions on others can be helpful to increase the accuracy of your perceptions.
7. When you’re in a negative mood, you tend to expect more negative outcomes and see yourself and others more negatively.
When you are sad or depressed, you are likely to see yourself as having little to be happy about or that you have little to look forward to. You are more attuned to painful events. When your mood changes, your view of your future is more optimistic, and you see the many reasons you have to be grateful, though nothing changed other than your mood.
Keep in mind your perceptions may be mood dependent. Remind yourself that when you are in a different mood, your views change.
8. Sometimes you let myths govern your responses.
Imagine you’re at work. You see a man with a few tears running down his cheeks. If you believe that tears are a sign of weakness, you’ll perceive the gentleman differently than if you believe that the expression of feelings is healthy or a sign of sensitivity. You may have the judgment without even thinking of the reason you are making it.
Consider writing down your beliefs about friendships, the opposite sex, relationships, or any area of conflict you might have. Then consider whether you are behaving according to rules and expectations that are actually myths.
9. It’s really difficult to have the whole truth.
The man who cut you off in traffic may be trying to get to the hospital for the birth of a child. The supervisor who didn’t give raises may have saved the department from layoffs, and the friend you believe ignored you may not have seen you.
Sometimes you are upset, because you interpret or give assumed meanings to events rather than staying with what you can actually observe to be true. Sometimes your perceptions, and thus your reactions, are based on assumptions. You can observe that the man cut you off in traffic, and you know that you were scared of an accident. You cannot observe that he did so because he is rude or has some other negative personality characteristic.
10. You reconstruct your memories.
Your memories of the past can be influenced by interactions and situations that occur after the original event. The language that someone uses to ask you questions about the event can influence your memory. If you have gaps in what you remember, you tend to fill them in to make the memory “whole.” And circumstances that occur after the original event affect your memory. For example, if you were best friends with someone at the time of the original event, but have an argument that severed your relationship in the years after, then you will not remember being as close as you actually were.
Thus your memory/perception of what happened five years ago might not be as accurate as you think. Consider that others’ memories may have some validity, even though their memories are likely flawed as well.
There are many ways our perceptions are actually inaccurate representations of reality. Keeping in mind that your perceptions may be faulty or incomplete may help you be more flexible in your views, giving you more peace and contentment.
Ariely, D. Predictably Irrational. New York: Harper Collins, 2008.
Elizabeth F. Loftus and John C. Palmer, Reconstruction of Automobile Destruction: An Example of the Interaction Between Language and Memory, Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 13, 585-589 (1974).