Perception Is Not Reality

Perception is reality is a phrase we often hear in the workplace, politics, relationships, and anywhere there is a dispute or conflict. This adage is often employed to support a perspective that is either blatantly unrealistic or objectively unreasonable. It is used to bully others into embracing someone’s chosen version of reality. From a philosophical standpoint, this proverb produces a sense of relativism in more likely absolute situations (think “the world is flat”).

Perception is NOT reality; let me say that with a firm sense of reality and without any room for perceptual flexibility. Let me begin by explaining why perceptions and reality differ since I am a word man, and I think that words significantly influence our attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions. Perception is described as follows in the dictionary:

  • “How one views, comprehends or interprets something; a mental impression.”

The dictionary’s definition of reality is as follows:

  • “The world or the real condition of things… existence that is absolute, independent, or objective and not subject to human judgment or convention.”

Perception and reality imply pretty different things. The former occurs only in the mind, where mental tricks may make any belief come true. The other cannot be readily manipulated and exists entirely outside the mind. It rejects the Enlightenment and returns to the Middle Ages to confuse perception with reality.

Although perception is not reality, it may undoubtedly become a person’s reality (there is a distinction) since perception significantly impacts how we see reality.

Consider it in this manner. We see reality via a lens called perception. Our perceptions affect how we pay attention to, think about, recall, interpret, comprehend, synthesize, make decisions about, and respond to reality. In doing so, we tend to believe that our perception of reality accurately reflects reality. Yet it isn’t. The issue is that our genetic predispositions, previous experiences, prior knowledge, emotions, preconceived beliefs, self-interest, and cognitive biases often skew the lens through which we observe.

By identifying cognitive biases—of which there are many—which are systematic ways in which people create a subjective social reality that differs from objective reality, Daniel Kahneman, the eminent psychologist who won the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics, created a veritable cottage industry.

I understand why some philosophers contend that because we don’t perceive reality directly, it is a fabrication created by our minds. Instead, our perception of reality is constrained by the senses we have. Humans can only see a limited variety of colors or hear audible sounds, for instance. A dog whistle may not be loud to humans, but that doesn’t imply it doesn’t exist in reality. Thankfully, technology allows us to measure reality objectively in most cases (although skeptics may counter that using the instruments needs perception, in which case they would “prove” that perception is reality).

What’s wrong with perception differing from reality is a crucial topic. What happens if I have an unrealistic perspective on the world? This issue requires a complex response that incorporates degree rather than kind, as with most things in life. For instance, a psychology hypothesis called positive illusions proposes that having a somewhat exaggerated perception of one’s talents might be advantageous psychologically and practically (e.g., gives hope, enhances persistence).

But when the perception changes from a mild illusion to a delusion, it might become dangerous if it diverges too far from the truth (e.g., setting unattainable goals, lack of preparation for a difficult task). A significant mismatch between perception and reality might render a person incapable of functioning (severe mental illness is an example).

A significant issue at the social level arises when several people or groups create perceptions that are so diametrically opposed. This disparity is demonstrated in our present political context when individuals of many political hues have such drastically divergent perspectives that it is hard to create an agreement or govern. Paralysis (in Congress) or antagonism (hate crimes) are the outcomes. Extreme widening of perspectives throughout a nation would probably cause the structures that keep a society together to slowly but steadily fall apart (dystopian themes in literature and film or, well, our world today).

How to keep perceptions close to reality is the difficulty we confront with our own and other people’s thinking. This alignment is vital for us to function in the actual world, reach agreements with others, and maintain the private, public, and social systems required for life as we know it. Here are some suggestions to bear in mind:

  • Refrain from assuming that your perceptions are reality (only your reality).
  • Be mindful of others’ opinions (they may be right)
  • Be open to the possibility that your perceptions could be incorrect (admitting it takes courage)
  • Be aware of any biases you may have that might skew your perceptions (seeing them will better ground your perceptions in reality rather than the other way around)
  • Examine your perceptions to see whether they can stand up to the scrutiny of reality.
  • Seek confirmation from authorities and reliable people (don’t simply ask your pals since they probably share your views).
  • Be willing to change your perceptions if the weight of the facts warrants it (rigidity of mind is far worse than being wrong)

The next time someone uses the worn-out argument that “but perception is reality” to defend the inadmissible, step up and correct them by pointing out that although it may be their perspective, it is not reality.

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