Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Perception is NOT reality

One of the latest stupid catchphrases making the rounds is the phrase, "Perception is reality." I think that people repeat phrases like this in an attempt to sound wise, and it saves them the trouble of thinking about what they're going to say.

A rational person with two more brain cells than it takes to watch Friends will understand what that phrase is really trying to say, and also the fallacy that it presents. What "perception is reality" is trying to say is that many people (most people?) observe a person, a situation or an incident and, based on their knowledge and their life's experiences, try to arrive at some sort of conclusion or make some sort of judgement about it. In today's world, which seems to be spinning around faster and faster, it seems like a prudent and safe way to manage the world around us and make good decisions for ourselves and our families.

The fallacy that it presents is best illustrated by some absurd examples of erroneous perceptions that we all engage in, every day, and then some real-life examples of what happens when perception becomes reality.

Let me give you the absurd examples first:
  • A blonde girl or woman is an airhead.
  • Someone who sleeps a lot is lazy.
  • Someone who doesn't talk very much, and keeps to him/herself in a crowd, is a snob.
  • A person who takes care to dress well, in a situation where most people don't, is ... well, a snob again, or an elitist, or "uppity," or "putting on airs."
  • A girl or woman with an ample chest has loose morals.
  • A musclebound football player is a dumb jock.
  • Anybody going slower than the speed limit on I-25 is a selfish jerk and a poor driver.
  • Lawyers are crooked people on the same level as used-car salesmen, out to get your money, but useful in a pinch.
We make generalizations like these all the time. Now here are some specific people, real people, whom I offer as proof that the perceptions above are NOT reality:
  • The blonde is a college graduate and a captain in the army, and recently spent two years coordinating deliveries of medical supplies to outposts under fire in Afghanistan. The army thinks she's so smart that they're paying for her to study to become a physician's assistant. She probably knows more about the world than you do, as you would find out if you spent a few minutes talking to her.
  • The sleeper suffers from an undiagnosed medical condition that has him and his doctors baffled at the present time.
  • The quiet person has a stuttering problem which has made her painfully shy over the years. Your resentful or hostile attitude towards her only makes the shyness hurt more.
  • The well-dressed person is too poor to afford the currently fashionable "weathered look," "grunge look," or whatever it's called at A&F and The Gap, and instead buys the highest quality, sturdiest clothes he can find on the rack at the secondhand store. It's a good thing rich people get tired of their clothes before they wear them out.
  • The well-endowed woman is still a virgin at 25, intends to stay that way until she's married, and is getting really tired of the nasty looks and comments she's gotten from both men and women since she was 12 years old. She's still looking for a man who can see past her chest.
  • The musclebound football player is taking AP classes in high school, carrying a 4.0 GPA, and hopes to major in pre-medicine at Stanford University on an academic scholarship, doing undergrad research project in cancer prevention.
  • The slow driver has gotten enough speeding tickets that the next one will cause him to lose his license, and since his job and his family depend on his ability to drive, he's not taking any chances, so he stays in the right lane and goes faster than the posted minimum speed (45) and slower than the posted maximum speed (55, 65 or 75).
  • All of the lawyers I know personally are honest men, honored and respected in the community, trying hard to satisfy both their clients and the demands of the law, and working hard enough to earn every dollar they make. I am certain that there are crooked or sleazy ones out there, but I haven't met any yet.
Now, let's go on to the real-life examples that illustrate the consequences of mistaking perception for reality.

The first example: a cashier at a supermarket was observed violently twisting open the lids on all the jars and bottles in an elderly person's shopping cart, and then softly twisting the lids shut again. Another customer seeing this prank became concerned and, on behalf of the elderly customer, reported it to the store's manager. The manager disciplined the cashier accordingly, for tampering with the elderly customer's purchase which could potentially accelerate spoilage and cause other imaginary bad consequences. Any attempt by the cashier to explain himself was squelched, ignored or discounted (even though the manager repeatedly shouted "WHAT DID YOU THINK YOU WERE DOING?" at the cashier, he didn't really want an answer). Nobody but the cashier had heard the elderly customer ask him to loosen the jar lids because the arthritis in her hands made it hard for her to do it herself, at home. Instead, "perception is reality" ensured that "no good deed goes unpunished."

The second example: an elected official had had a strong opinion about an issue that was dear to the hearts of America's voters. After holding that strong opinion for many years, he observed one case that caused him to question his position. Privately, he made inquiries and conducted quiet research into the lives of his constituents and other citizens, and after a long period of study, he publicly announced a change in his opinion. People are allowed to change their minds, aren't they? Especially when they decide that their opinion is wrong? Normally we call this "growth," or the acquisition of "wisdom." However, years later, this elected official ran for a national office. His opponents got a lot of mileage out of his change of opinion, calling it "flip-flopping," as if the ability to change his mind when confronted with additional information was a weakness that disqualified him from seeking public office. It's almost as though Americans prefer their politicians to be stubborn and dogmatic.

There's a hymn we sing at church that says, "In the quiet heart is hidden sorrow that the eye can't see." We seldom know the motivations behind people's actions, and we're never in a position to accurately judge someone from their appearance alone. And yet the fallacy embodied in the phrase "perception is reality" guarantees that we will make wrong decisions about people, based on our perceptions, every single day. "Perception is reality" wraps us in a protective cloak of ignorance so that, if our decisions and resulting actions ruin someone's life, we can justify ourselves that we made the right decision based on the reality at the time.

Substituting perception for reality is one of the lamest, most mentally lazy exercises we do in the modern world. It saves us from having to really think about a situation, to look for the truth buried under the surface, and to challenge our assumptions. Challenging your assumptions is sometimes a painful exercise, and occasionally a dangerous one.

The next time someone tells me "Perception is reality," I'm going to look them in the eye and say with all the contempt I can muster, "That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard."

At least "Perception is reality" managed to displace the phrase, "It is what it is."

1 comment:

Zyzmog said...

I was discussing this with a sociology professor at our local university, and she responded with this wise observation (not her own, she was quoting somebody else):

"Perception is not reality, but it is real in its consequences."

She spent another 45 minutes with me while I digested that. And the truth is that, although perception is NOT reality and my outrage is not misplaced, the consequences of perception ARE real and must be taken into account.