What you see is what there is…
Years ago, in a bar in Johannesburg, I got talking to a group of locals and as the conversation unraveled, one of the girls told me that her life dream was to visit London. When I asked her why didn’t she go, she said: “too dangerous”
She lived in one of the most dangerous cities on the planet, where everybody carries a gun for self-defense, all cars are bulletproof and most houses are bunkers with electric fences, armed guards, etc.
In London, there is not a lot of crime considering the size, and there are no guns, not even for the police! It’s pretty safe.
Your perception is your reality
That got me thinking. If that woman, who seemed fairly intelligent, articulated, and knowledgeable can get her perception so wrong, maybe she is not the only one, maybe we all have gaps and biases that distort reality in a way that we can’t even begin to realize.
Maybe I’ve been wrong about a lot of things I’ve considered real.
What if I’ve chosen to live my life following the wrong map?
What if everything I was ever told was wrong?
What if getting married, having 1.8 children, buy a house in the suburbs, and getting a steady paycheck is not the only way or even the best way to live your life?
If your perception is wrong, then everything else is wrong. Full stop. It doesn’t matter how intelligent, capable, or knowledgeable you are. With the wrong map, you’ll never get to your destination, and you won’t even realize you are in the wrong place.
That’s why it is very important to be aware of the fallacies and biases we carry around and to make sure that we have systems in place to keep us in check.
Reasons why our perception is flawed
We can never get to the bottom of things. The tools that we have are too rudimentary. We are like children believing in Santa, totally oblivious to reality and unable to see the whole picture.
Politicians, marketers, and the news have a vested interest in distorting our image of the world. The less we know about reality, the more money they can make.
Our minds have adaptive mechanisms to facilitate decision making. This involves shortcuts and heuristics that can be useful at times but often just distort reality.
For example, availability bias makes us think that flying is dangerous when it is actually the safest means of transportation. Due to this distortion, many people drive when they should be flying, thus increasing the number of fatalities.
Reality is too complex. The universe is made out of atoms and governed by the laws of quantum mechanics (as far as we know) Only a handful of scientists truly understand quantum physics and everything involving it, and even they don’t know what they don’t know.
What chances do we have, as mere mortals, to understand what’s really going on? This not just physics or science, the same can be said for economics, medicine, psychology, or geopolitics. Have you ever seen an economist predicting a recession correctly? Me neither.
Filling the gaps
Not knowing makes us uncomfortable, we tend to fill the gaps of knowledge with narrative, fictional stories, and made-up data. This completely distorts our perception and gives us a skewed view of reality. Religion, for instance, has been used for centuries to fill gaps in our knowledge.
We see patterns where there is only randomness. The mind likes to fabricate connections between unconnected events. Most conspiracy theories are based on creating false patterns.
We love back fitting narratives. We are all very good at predicting unexpected events like COVID-19 or recessions AFTER they’ve happened.
It’s clear that our perceptions are flawed but, what can we do to be more objective or at least limit the negative effects they bring?
Realizing that your mind is not perfect and that, right now, you are suffering from delusions is a good starting point. Think of your perception as a gun that is skewed to one side — to hit the target you have correct the deviation and compensate for it by pointing to the opposite side.
If you are left-wing, lean to the right
If you are pessimistic, force yourself to see the bright side
If you are an atheist, realize that you could be wrong
Every time a thought pops up, observe it and question it. Is this accurate? Am I being objective? Am I being biased?
Awareness is one of the greatest tools, not only to correct our biases but also to understand reality.
The best way to develop awareness is meditation. Keep observing your mind as if it were an external object. Over time you’ll develop a more objective and less reactive view of your own mind.
First-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas at the same time
Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Think of anybody who’s wronged you in the past and make an effort to understand his point of view. Keep in mind that free will is mostly a fallacy. We are all heavily influenced by our upbringing, genes, and environment.
How different would you be now as a person had you been born in poverty and squalor?
Thinking in extremes can help you shift your reality
Stop watching the news
The news is the biggest weapon of manipulation. The information is salient, biased, sensationalist, partisan, racist, condescending, and prone to availability bias.
They play with your emotions and make you addicted. Flying is safe, Africa is not starving, London is not dangerous and terrorism is a minor problem compared to many others. But if you watch the news you won’t agree with that.
Switch off all the news and you’ll be better informed and sane.
Most of us tend to hang out with like-minded people, receive information from the same channels and consume media from similar sources. This creates information silos in which we only see what we want to see. It’s a form of self-inflicted propaganda.
This accentuates our confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance.
Social media has only increased this trend even further. How many of your friends in FB hold different views from you?
If you only listen to middle class, middle age, left-wing white men, then your vision of reality is totally unbalanced.
Most psychology research has been conducted using WEIRD people (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic). If you are weird, make sure you step out of your comfort zone and listen to different views to widen your horizons.
Bend your perception
Although it is important to be as objective as possible, there are occasions in which it is better to be completely biased. Since we’ll never be able to grasp reality why not bend it to our advantage?
Bend it this way:
- Be a dreamer, don’t be too pragmatic
- Be an optimist, avoid negativity
- Live with hope, rather than in quiet desperation
- Embrace risk, rather than living in fear
- Open your heart, rather shield it for protection
If you are going to bend perception, bend it to your advantage.
We don’t know what reality is and it doesn’t matter anyway.
Through your perception, you create your reality so you might as well create a pleasant one.
Nobody wants to live in fear and dread. Open your eyes, look at the beauty around you, put on your color-tinted glasses if you must, and enjoy every minute because this is a miracle and you are very lucky to be alive.
Falling in love is an extreme example of perception bias and yet isn’t it wonderful? Would you rather be totally objective?