Been there, done that … or are my perceptions wrong?

“I don’t get it,” he said, shaking his head. “How could I be so wrong?” I was speaking with a fellow writer who for years had been trying to attain some level of fame. He had enjoyed minor successes but nothing remarkable or, seemingly, sustainable.

“There is no truth. There is only perception.”

— Gustave Flaubert, French author of novels and short stories

“I don’t get it,” he said, shaking his head. “How could I be so wrong?”

I was speaking with a fellow writer who for years had been trying to attain some level of fame. He had enjoyed minor successes but nothing remarkable or, seemingly, sustainable.

He often spoke of a “no-talent hack” of his acquaintance who seemed to be enjoying tremendous success despite his lack of talent. “Success today has more to do with slick marketing,” he would say, “than it does with talent.” I could only agree with him to a point.

Then the day came when he happened upon some early work of his nemesis.

“I hadn’t read his work for years,” he admitted. “I was going through some boxes and found an early volume of short stories by area writers. His was one of them. I was prepared to laugh at his purple prose when I opened the volume and started reading. I felt like crying.”

“Really,” I responded. “It was that moving?”

“It was that good and it kills me to admit it.”

I’ve been told often that perception is reality. My enlightened friends have informed me that reality is reality and perception is reality filtered through our fears, beliefs and prejudices.

Our perception is not always accurate. What we believe to be true about a person, place or event may be only partially accurate or entirely incorrect. Over the years, I’ve changed many of my earlier assessments. It began when I started working on my self-esteem and made a commitment to view things and people (myself included) more openly and honestly.

Apparently, mistakes in judgment result from what experts term perceptual errors.

I’ve read that perceptual errors are increasing as our lives become busier. The busier we get, the more we have a tendency to cut corners and take shortcuts to conclusions. In short, we do a lot more assuming — drawing conclusions without the benefit of adequate information.

We find ourselves in what we perceive to be a similar situation so, instead of making a serious assessment, we make an assumption followed by a quick judgment about what we’re seeing or experiencing. It looks the same so therefore it must be the same, right? Worse yet, subsequent conclusions are based on an assumption that the initial conclusion was correct. You can see how this can lead to a whole series of perceptual errors.

Most perceptual errors happen at an unconscious level. They are rooted in our past experiences and resulting beliefs; that’s what makes them so tough to change. The first step in changing perceptual errors is to recognize them. To create that awareness we must first understand four different types of shortcuts many of us employ every day at home and work.

Halo Effect. We do this when we take an impression created by one situation or person and allow it to influence our opinion in other situations or with other individuals. We assume because an individual is good at doing A, he or she will also be good at doing B, C and D. For example, Bob is a great salesperson; therefore, he will make a great sales manager. The reverse is also true.

If Bob is bad at doing A, then we assume he will also be bad at doing B, C and D.

Central Tendency. This shortcut employs the law of averages. Let’s say your department at work receives a grade – based upon customer surveys – of seven out of 10. You might assume you’re doing well as compared to other departments when, in fact, you’re actually doing well in a few areas and poorly in others. Instead of addressing the areas which require improvement, you focus on the overall score and congratulate your team on a job well done.

Contrast Effect. Our conclusion is drawn by comparing (or contrasting) one item to another. For example, an English teacher may grade a lesser piece of writing more harshly after reviewing a highly polish and professional piece. This technique is used often in sales. A salesperson might show you a mid-range item in the midst of both low-end and high-end products. The items will be perceived differently depending upon the surrounding comparison samples.

Stereotyping. We draw conclusions about an individual based upon our aggregate belief about an entire group or culture. One standard definition reads, “A stereotype is a fixed or generalized belief about a particular group or class of people.” One example might be that country people are less worldly and therefore less wise in the ways of world. One advantage of stereotyping is that it allows us to rapidly respond to situations. One disadvantage is that it makes us ignore differences among individuals and make generalizations that are likely untrue.

A major component of self-esteem building is awareness. By applying these perceptual corrections to one’s self-view, we can improve our self-awareness and thus, our self-esteem.

What most shocked my fellow writer was the inaccuracy of his perception. Maybe (at some level) he needed to see his contemporary as flawed in order to justify his own lack of success. I was pleased to see that he had the presence of mind to reassess and shift his perception.

Edward de Bono, the Maltese physician, author, inventor and consultant once wrote, “Most of the mistakes in thinking are inadequacies of perception rather than mistakes of logic.”

Generally speaking, most of us are pretty good at drawing accurate conclusions. And to a greater or lesser degree, our beliefs will always have a direct impact on our perception of reality. That said, it’s important to challenge our perceptions occasionally and seek a deeper understanding. The result might be astounding, resulting (certainly) in a broader awareness but also in a greater tolerance and empathy for others and maybe, a shift in consciousness.