Perception is Reality: How Our Views Shape Our World

We explore the world by believing what we see to be true. As we go through our day, walking, talking, and relying on our senses to experience the world around us. But how much of what we see is real? And how much is influenced by our way of looking at things?

Acting like the two sides of a coin, our perception and reality are the same and yet completely different. They are the contradictory parts of our existence. In this article, we take a close look at the idea of why “perception is reality.” We explore the paradox, meaning how “perception is reality” and yet “perception is not reality.” To understand these, we use examples and dive into philosophy and psychology to unpack both sides.

Furthermore, as we delve into the relationship between perception, reality, and our decisions.

What is Perception?

Perception is about translating and understanding what we receive through our senses. Yet, perception is not equal to what we receive through our senses. Rather perception is partly a cognitive process. So, memories, motivation, attitudes, cultural values, beliefs, and our physical and mental state all can change our perception.

For example, let’s say you walk in the yard in early spring and a snake with green stripes crawls around your feet. You might perceive this as a danger and be alarmed. Yet if you know about garter snakes and have seen them around before, you perceive them as harmless. In two situations, the eyes see the same animal but the perception of danger or safety is different.

Perception functions as the link between the senses and our understanding of the reality. It works with senses to edit and curate things to bring them to our attention.

The act of perception is more of a process that starts with sensory input and enables us to make sense of the world around us. Our decisions and actions are for the most part guided through perception, which is often hidden from our immediate experience.

So, if you ever wonder why you made your life choices, It is important to understand perception to become aware of how we make decisions as we move in life.

Meaning: Perception is reality

“Dreams feel real while we are in them, it’s only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange.”

Inception (2010)

Perception becomes reality because how we perceive situations and events shapes our understanding and response to them. It makes us take one action and not the other.

We commonly assume that we see our environment as it truly is. But people often perceive the external world through the lens of their perception. Meaning, that their version of reality could be different depending on their perception at the time.

Push for survival

Research in psychology has consistently demonstrated that people’s internal state influences their perception of the external world and this is closely connected to our basic survival. 1

Our perception is formed to motivate us toward survival and to keep us away from danger. Since water is an essential part of our life, our perceptions around it represent this evolutionary bias. For instance, psychology researchers at New York University, show that when thirsty, people tend to underestimate their distance to a bottle of water. 2 In another research from the Department of Psychology at Duke University, when thirsty, people tend to perceive water as being more clear and transparent compared to when they are not thirsty. 3 This could be an evolutionary push to encourage our survival. Since, if we perceive water as more attainable, and more desirable, there is a much higher chance that we reach for it.

Similarly, when it comes to our fears and avoidance, our perception tricks us to stay as far as possible, even if the danger is not too close. For instance, in research on the relationship between perception and reality, individuals with spider phobia misinterpret the direction of a moving spider, by wrongly seeing the moving spider approaching them. 4

So, our perceptions often deceive us into exaggerating threats, as seen in individuals with spider phobia misinterpreting the movement of spiders as approach them.

Most of our contemporary lives revolve around more complex issues. So, understanding these evolutionary biases and distortions in perception can help us understand how we make decisions. Why do we underestimate or overestimate the weight of issues in our lives? Ultimately, this aids in developing strategies to confront and manage our fears more effectively.

Perception changes our action

Perception changes our reality because how we perceive situations and events directs our actions and shapes our response to them.

Take, for instance, a job interview. If a candidate enters the interview room with confidence, maintains eye contact, and speaks with assurance. They’re more likely to be perceived as capable, regardless of their actual qualifications. On the other hand, if another candidate appears nervous, fidgety, and uncertain, despite having similar qualifications, they may be perceived as less suitable for the role.

In situations like job interviews, how confident or nervous someone appears affects how interviewers see their abilities and decide if they get hired. In these cases, it’s often perception, not just facts, that determines what happens next.

Perception is not Reality

Perception shapes how people see the world, but it’s important to understand that perception isn’t the same as objective reality.

It is often flawed with illusion being entirely subjective and is influenced by our past experiences and biases. For example, in criminal cases, eyewitness testimonies could be unreliable because they might affected by factors like stress and leading questions.

Research looking at NAS reports on eyewitnesses shows that despite their confidence, “eyewitnesses make mistakes” and can provide inaccurate information. They observed that: “Without awareness, we regularly encode information in a prejudiced manner and later forget, reconstruct, update, and distort the things we believe to be true. Uncertain memories of witnessed events may thus be biased readily by information subsequently gathered from numerous sources, including law enforcement, counsel, family, friends, and the press, all of which can reduce the likelihood that an eyewitness correctly identifies the culprit.” 5

So, while perception affects how people see their reality, it’s essential to recognize its limitations for defining objective reality. And keep in mind that perception is not objectively accurate. Rather, it is a good enough model to help us navigate the reality around us.

So, Despite its subjective and flawed nature, perception provides a useful framework for interpreting and interacting with the world

Perception changes our reality

It turns out that positive and negative attitudes and beliefs toward something manipulate our perception and even our body to make sure we stay within our beliefs. For example, if someone has a positive attitude towards a particular political candidate, they may perceive their actions and statements more favorably than someone who holds a negative attitude towards that candidate.

We often pride ourselves on being able to act objectively from time to time but studies in perception show that when it comes to emotional connections, we can never be truly objective. Our perception will simply trick us into aligning the world around us to match our perception.

This means, we see and judge people related to us based on our feelings about them. For example, In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, romantic partners are rated more beautiful than an equally attractive stranger. 6 So, even our perception of beauty is intimately tied to our emotional connections, shaping how we see and evaluate those close to us

Perception, reality, and proficiency in math

Perception can even change the workings of our brains. So, we live within our existing beliefs. How does our perception, influenced by attitudes, impact cognitive functions such as memory?

For example, students who feel good or bad about math will see different things happening in their brain’s memory center.

Researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine studied elementary school kids and found a link between liking math and better memory function in a part of the brain called the hippocampus. This part is really important for memory. Their study showed that thinking positively about math makes the hippocampus work better when doing math problems. 7

Research on stigma, self-esteem, and academic performance also shows a similar result. It shows that even “belonging to a group whose academic abilities are negatively stereotyped” could impact one’s academic performance. 8

Simply put, if we don’t have a positive perspective toward something, our perception changes our reality to fit our expectations, even if it means weakening our memory.

So, our thoughts about things can change how our brains work. Our minds are busy with all sorts of thoughts every day, most of which we tend to ignore. Among these are negative thoughts that we don’t address, which might not even originate from us but from influences like our parents or friends who see things differently.

But when it comes to how we see things, it doesn’t matter where the idea came from. In the end, how we see something affects what happens in real life.

How Perception Shapes the Future

At any moment in time, our perception not only shapes the world we live in but also someone’s perception at this point will have a significant impact on their future.

It influences how individuals interpret the world, shaping their attitudes, beliefs, decisions, and actions. Here’s how it works:

  • Self-Perception: How individuals see themselves impacts their future. Positive self-perception leads to confidence and resilience, fostering personal growth and success. Negative self-perception, however, can undermine confidence and motivation, hindering progress.
  • Perception of Opportunities: Those who see opportunities around them are more likely to pursue them, leading to success. Conversely, limited perceptions of opportunities may discourage us from seeking new paths.
  • Perception of Challenges: How individuals view challenges affects their ability to overcome them. Seeing challenges as opportunities for growth encourages persistence and achievement.
  • Perception of Others: Perceptions of others influence social interactions and support networks. Positive perceptions foster strong connections, contributing to personal and professional success.

Perception can determine success and life outcome

In our daily lives, we often overlook the workings of the perception process, as it operates mostly outside of our conscious awareness. Perception seamlessly guides our actions and decisions. For instance, when we spot a red apple on the table and feel hungry, we instinctively reach for it. Similarly, if we notice a large bear while hiking, it immediately triggers our alarm.

Perception works quickly and quietly, often without us even realizing it. This is important because when we encounter an animal like a bear, we don’t have time for long, detailed thinking. However, our societies are much more complex than those of our ancestors who relied on quick perception for survival. Despite this, perception still plays a significant role in our lives.

In everyday life, how we see things can decide if we achieve our goals or not. It affects how we experience things, connect with others, and find opportunities, which decides where our life goes. In a few years, this could mean having a happy life or one full of regrets and missed chances.

For the most part, we go through life without really thinking about how our perception affects us. This can sometimes hold us back if we’re influenced by perceptions that don’t help us.

In summary, how we perceive things greatly affects our success and where we end up in life. It’s easy to overlook how much our perception influences our actions every day. But if we understand it better and try to change it for the better, we can avoid holding ourselves back and reach our goals more easily. As a result, it’s important to pay attention to how we see things and work on shaping them in a positive direction.

Your perception is your reality, so, now what?

Perception is our primary contact with the world. Whatever we know, we know directly or indirectly by means of perception. And the vast majority of our actions rely on perceptual guidance. The mind begins and, to be a bit dramatic ends with perception.

Bence Nanay in Perception: The Basics

So far, we looked at how perception shapes our reality and our personal lives. Our discussion about perception brings us to two main conclusions:

  1. The perception process is fast, mostly hidden from our conscious mind.
  2. Perception is key in shaping how we see the world around us, influencing both our present reality and our future paths.

Now, if perception influences much of our lives, can we find ways to use it to our advantage?

Attention and Perception

Let’s look at one key factor that affects how we see things: attention.

Attention plays a crucial role in shaping perception, influencing what information from the environment we process and how we interpret it.

Simon and Chabris design is the most famous example of attention. Their experiment is fully illustrated in their book The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us Paperback.

First, in their study, participants were shown a video clip of two teams playing basketball, one dressed in black and the other in white. Next, the participants were then asked to count the number of passes executed by the white team.

However, in the middle of the video, a person in a gorilla suit walks into the scene, thumps their chest, and slowly exits. Interestingly, half of the subjects in the study did not notice the gorilla! 9 You might think, how is it possible that study participants don’t see the gorilla?

This phenomenon is called selection attention or perceptual attention.

The Gorilla Experiment

When the researchers gave study participants the task of counting the passes between the white team. As a result, their brain blocks out everything except the players in white outfits. So, they could count accurately. This means, the players in black, the background, and even the gorilla in black don’t leave any impression because they are in white outfits and thus serve no purpose. This helps the participant to concentrate and reach their goal (counting the number of passes between players in white).

The “Gorilla experiment” is fascinating because it shows how we can use our attention to control our perception and achieve our goals.

Our perception aims to spotlight what matters most and ignore the rest as background noise. So, having “focused attention” appears to be the trick to shaping our perception toward our life goals. It sounds simple, but it’s not as easy as it seems!

In conclusion, just having a goal and determination might not be sufficient to direct our perception. But why? What factors could lead to “focused attention” falling short?

Obstacles in shifting perception

Having Multiple Priorities

The first reason could be competing priorities. Humans are not very good at multitasking. Despite celebrating the idea of multitasking, studies in biology show that “the human mind and brain lack the architecture to perform two or more tasks simultaneously.” 10

So, trying to juggle multiple priorities and deciding which one to focus on might not work well with the idea of “focused attention.”

Scanning for the next step

When Joan Benoit Samuelson suffered a broken leg in a skiing accident in high school, she decided to take on running to recover from her injury. She went on to win the gold medal at the 1984 Summer Olympics. According to Emily Balcetis, social psychologist, Samuelson has a clear strategy that helps her in her marathon. What is her strategy and how does she do it?

She achieves this by narrowing her focus throughout a race. When she runs, she scans the runners ahead of her and picks one to pass. Let’s say the one in the pink shirt. She then focuses all her attention on the runner in a pink shirt. Reaching her mark, she picks a new target from runners ahead of her and focuses all her attention on that. By picking a clear and specific goal, for example, passing the runner in the pink shirt, she directs her perception through “focused attention.” By setting focused attention, she makes her perception work toward reaching her goal. 11

Success and narrowing focus

Emily Balcetis, in Clearer, Closer, Better: How Successful People See the World describes that when running Samuelson trains her eyes to focus on a single subgoal. Not only does this eliminate all the distractions but also it motivates her to move faster. This way reaching a large and remote goal becomes tangible in her view.

Joan Benoit Samuelson focuses on one thing at a time when she runs, like passing a runner in a pink shirt. This helps her stay motivated and run faster. By setting small goals, like passing someone ahead, she makes big goals feel closer. So, focusing on little steps can help us reach our big dreams.

In summary, even if our goals aren’t all about sports, the idea of focused attention still applies to many aspects of life. Whether it’s academics, fitness, music, or career, the key is the same: breaking big goals into smaller ones, staying focused, and avoiding distractions. So, the important question is: how do we figure out what the next small step should be?


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