Deceived by Perception—Again

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By Robert Fludd, via Wikimedia Commons

The other day Robin said something to me—can’t remember what—but I took offense and let her know it. She said, “That’s just a story your telling yourself. It has nothing to do with me or what I think.” I had perceived—again—a meaning that wasn’t there.

Perception is a mental process that occurs when external objects come in contact with one of the five senses. Part of the process involves feelings—which are positive, negative, or neutral—and making judgements based on those feelings. Judgments then decide what we do next.

Perceptions are what guide us through our lives, helping us to secure safety and comfort. The way we perceive things—and make judgements about our perceptions—is based on experience. Lots of input from the past influences how we interpret sense-data and act in the present.

Perception works on a primal level during every moment of consciousness but usually happens without our being conscious of it.

The classic example of how this works shows a person alone in the wilderness. He hears a rustle in the bushes and in an instant recognizes the threat and grabs his spear a split second before the tiger leaps. A chain of physiological events happen almost instantly and simultaneously to make survival possible, all because of perception.

But what if… Many things besides a tiger can cause a rustle in the bushes—a breeze, a mouse, a friend approaching. Our wilderness dweller could be deceived by perception and get worked up over nothing. Still, he’d be alive.

But what if… The wilderness dweller misperceives the threat as the rustle of a breeze and does not grab the spear. Deception in reverse can be deadly.

Most of us don’t have to worry about tigers, but there are other threats that we do have worry about. Perceiving threats correctly, and acting accordingly, ensures our survival. And, if we were alone in the world, even if we misperceive a threat, no harm done.

But we are not alone in the world. Interactions with other people give rise to thousands of perceptions every day. And that gives us thousands of chances to be deceived by our own perceptions and make judgements about their meaning and what to do about them. Misperceiving a threat from someone when there is none can in turn create unpleasant—if not dangerous—situations.

If someone bangs on your door in the middle of the night, chances are good your perception of danger is real and necessitates decisive action. But in casual interactions, it’s usually a good idea to check perceptions against reality before making hasty judgements and taking unwarranted action.

6 thoughts on “Deceived by Perception—Again”

  1. Geoff, you’re right, the reasons for my taking offense to anything can be sorted through only by me. And I assure you, I do a lot of sorting through of things—perhaps much too much. Which presents another paradox. Is there a threshold of introspection where crossing it would be detrimental to one’s mental health? It’s a rhetorical question, of course, because any answer can only be subjective. Anyway, thanks for the comment.

  2. This is a question philosophers have grappled with for millennia: does reality alter perception, or does perception alter reality? The pop culture version is which came first, the chicken, or the egg?
    Because the question is so abstract, I don’t find it all that useful. However, deciphering truth from falsehood is fundamental to having an accurate perception of reality.
    In your particular case, the reason for taking offense to what Robin said, can only be untangled and sorted through by you, yes? Having a well stocked reserve of self-knowledge can be very beneficial in these situations. As Socrates once said “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

  3. TWF, impossible, maybe, but something to strive for, and as you imply, training and intention help. And I see what you mean where you say self-deception may work to our advantage. But isn’t there is a difference between denial and self-deception? And even if denial (or intentional self-deception) may be a good strategy for maintaining a relationship by avoiding confrontation, wouldn’t you say a better strategy would be to not take offense at something a coworker said even when we understood the offensiveness or wrongness of the remark? That, too, takes training. But don’t you know we get lots of opportunities for practice!

  4. Great insights, Paul! I struggle with this myself. I’ve found that, with training, in certain contexts, you can nearly eliminate telling yourself stories. But it’s nigh impossible to do it all of the time in every aspect of your life.

    I can’t help but wonder, though, if sometimes self-deception works to our advantage, like when a friend or coworker says something offensive or wrong and we just let it go thinking that they meant something else. The advantage there is that the relationship is maintained without unnecessary confrontations.

  5. Thank you for expanding our conversation, Paul. This is incredibly thoughtful and brings me a new perspective on the perception issues I’ve been seeing over the past few months. Now when I talk about perception-checking with students, I’ve got primal science in my toolkit! 🙂

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