Let me start by saying that a lot of seemingly problematic situations is due to our perception as opposed to what is real.
Have you ever wondered why a situation doesn’t seem complicated for you while it does for others? Or maybe you’ve met a person who is liked by many – except, perhaps, you?
More importantly, do you feel weird when people think so highly of you and your capabilities but you can’t see those capabilities at all??
All of these things we can attribute to what is described by the concept of perception. In this article, we will talk about what perception is, the good and bad sides of perception, how to improve it, and how you can use it to improve yourself.
What is Perception?
Perception is the process of taking in, processing, and making meaning of information to make sense of the world.
How does the perceptual process happen?
Making sense of our surroundings involves a dynamic and perceptual process of organizing sensory information – that is, what we see, hear, touch, smell, and taste – into the existing patterns inside our heads.
We then interpret this information using past experiences.
Take this image, for example.
What do you see? You may think of this shape as a circle, but it is not.
Technically, a shape is a closed object. So why do we make sense of it as a circle?
Because our brain naturally fills in the gaps. Take a closer look at the image in case you didn’t see it the first time!
Also, our perception of sensory information depends largely on past information where we process objects based on what we expect.
In the same way when you are unclear of certain life situations, and there is no communication between you and the other party, you will tend to “fill in the blanks” and assume.
So what does this mean? While one might believe that everything they experience is an objective reality, it is not.
This is why we already have some form of judgment towards someone we had just met five minutes ago. And we haven’t even talked to them yet! I’ve found myself guilty of this behaviour so many times and surprised myself with how many times I’ve ‘judged’ them wrong.
The Pros and Cons
One cannot live without perception. Perception enables us to take in the sensory information within our environment to move and act towards it.
However, the tricky part with perception is that it is not entirely objective.
1. Sensation and perception allow us to interact with the world around us.
Without the ability to use our five senses, we will not be able to see the path we’re walking on, reach for objects, talk to people, listen to the knock on the door, and enjoy the food that we eat. Perception is vital in our daily lives
2. Perception enables us to make sense of and process sensory information surrounding us.
From infanthood, we continue to take in relevant sensory information and add them to our schema. What’s a schema you ask? Well a schema is a way our brain organizes and interprets information.
They’re really useful because they let us take shortcuts in understanding the huge amount of information that we are exposed to every day, and even, every minute. This is vital for learning, allowing us to have a proper interpretation of everything around us.
Perception allows us to take in and store information and make patterns and connections out of them. We then use these connections to interpret the world in real-time and to prepare for the future.
1. Our senses are prone to be tricked
A person sliced while inside a box (and surviving!); or a rabbit pulled out of a hat are all entertaining to watch.
Why? Because it gives us an experience that doesn’t fit within the rules of reality. In the same way, our perception can be fooled. The brain tends to filter out unnecessary, contradicting, or extraneous information.
For example, if you eat chocolates, drinking a mildly sweetened juice will seem bland.
Illusions expose the blind spots in our visual perception. Visual perception, or the process of making sense of information from what we see, is challenged when presented with ambiguous stimuli.
It forces our brains to make decisions based on what it expects to see. Hence, when given contradicting information, the brain gets confused and gets “tricked.”
Optical illusions are another great way of seeing how easily our brains can be tricked. One of my all-time faves is the Beau Lotto Rubiks cube illusion.
2. The perceptual process is strongly influenced and affected by what we know and what we have experienced in the past.
Our brains want to ensure our survival. We have learned not to touch hot surfaces because they’ll burn our hands. We also know from experience to sip our coffees slowly.
Amazing examples of this can be found in studies on Inattentional Blindness. I’ve seen loads of variations to this one, but a classic example is this ball counting awareness test video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-Dg-06nrnc&ab_channel=KiaraNelson
Factors that Affect Perception
A variety of factors influences our experience of reality, most of which are unconscious.
It is essential to be aware of these since these influences affect our emotions, our behaviour, and ultimately our decisions and judgment. Here are the three factors that affect our perception:
These are physiological and psychological factors that occur within a person that he may or may not be consciously aware of. Examples are as follows:
Interest and Needs
We pay way more attention to the things that we need or are of particular interest to us. In a queue, we wait for our names or numbers to be called. We carefully listen, blocking out unnecessary information, careful we would miss our names.
Marketers and communicators often use this strategy to tap into our perceived needs to allure us into buying their products. Those wiley marketers 😉
Our expectations towards situations and other individuals also affect our interpretation of their behaviour and how we act towards them. Here, we usually use stereotypes, like:
– Buff men are sporty.
– Vegetables don’t taste nice. (Okay, not all.)
– Pimply men who wear eyeglasses and braces are nerds.
Did you imagine someone you know as you were reading those? See—the power of perception.
Our expectations of others affect our behaviour towards them. Using the illustration above, let’s imagine that both buff guy and pimply guy apply for work.
The manager might quickly favour the pimply guy because he “looks smart” than the buff guy. It’s a natural human tendency to perceive similarly. Believe it or not, I’ve actually exploited this by wearing glasses into meetings (I often wear contact lenses) knowing that people will take the glasses into account as they judge me.
Experiences also play an essential role in our perception. As a child, if your first teachers were strict, unfriendly, and firm, chances are, you’re the type of kid who was scared of teachers growing up.
Energy level and abilities
Being excellent and skilled at something might make you feel like the task is easy while others have a hard time with it. The same is true with our energy levels. When we feel tired, the workload seems heavier and hours longer.
Ah, the classic “hangery.” I think everybody has experienced this at some point in their lives. You just get a little crankier and irritated when you’re hungry. My levels of ‘hanger’ can fluctuate from mild to nuclear, especially when coupled with really low energy levels.
Suddenly every food I smell seems savory, my favourite.
When we feel bad, we perceive things to look more difficult or even impossible than they really are. It’s as if the only thing we see is the negative. Other relevant internal factors contributing to the perceptual process are attitudes, motives, personality, and desire.
These factors are outside of the person. These are qualities or characteristics of the “target” of our behaviour. These may be an object, a person, or an event. Under this factor are the following characteristics:
Familiarity or novelty
We are more likely to be confident to approach others we know or places we’ve been compared to new ones. On the other hand, depending on one’s personality, novelty may be more exciting than familiar, already dull situations.
Fast-moving objects exude excitement and energy or even danger. People running away from a source may cause us to panic while slowly moving ones radiate calmness and safety and are unlikely to catch our attention.
A loud, explosive sound is often perceived as dangerous, while a soft sound is perceived as safe. At the same time, loud individuals get more attention than quiet ones.
If you’re like me, you instinctively feel a sense of caution and urgency upon hearing the loud, blaring sound of the siren. A visual image of a burning building or a shoot-out might even suddenly pop-out!
I’ve even found myself ducking when hearing a loud bang from a car exhaust, like I’m trying to dodge a bullet – despite living in a country where gun crimes are very few and far between.
It’s just amazing how sensation and perception are so closely intertwined!
Remember, how as a child, you thought that the bigger the box, the more expensive the gift? As adults, we quickly perceive confident and knowledgeable individuals as authority figures, and there is a high probability that we will follow them. We even tend to follow taller people, simply because they’re taller and appear to have more leadership potential.
We have the tendency to stereotype others based on where they came from or the school they graduated from.
Psychology says that the colour red is energizing and motivates humans to take action. In fact, marketers use this to their advantage when selling their products to us. No wonder everything is in red when there is a sale!
Proximity and Similarity
Our brains cluster events together and use this as a basis for future experiences. You see a light brown liquid on a mug. What do you immediately assume? You think that it’s coffee.
When unsure, we use our senses to gather more information. We smell or touch the object. What are we doing here? We try to compare the stimuli with our schema and check for similarities.
These factors include those in which the individual sees the object, people, or event at the moment of perception. This includes the time, the work setting, and the social situation.
When we do tasks, they seem easier with others around than when you are undertaking a task without them around. One might even perform better and be spurred towards action when an audience is watching!
Importance of Self-Perception
Self-perception is basically knowing yourself: your preferences, skills, and capabilities. The thing is, these self-perceptions are instilled in us from our childhood before we can have a say in them.
The good thing is, we can change and correct wrong self-perception, especially when our perception of ourselves is inaccurate. This is especially necessary when we are aiming at improving ourselves. This helps us focus on real problems and not the perceived ones.
An accurate self-perception involves recognizing our own strengths and weaknesses, acknowledging where we fall short, and understanding that our view of ourselves may not be as precise as we thought they were, and be open to change them.
How do we do that? We need honesty.
We need to be honest with ourselves.
Holding onto a false perception of ourselves will be of no help and will even be detrimental in the long run.
Being honest with our own limitations and capacities allows us to reach out to others for help when we need to and stand our ground during difficult situations because we have a firm foundation.
Ways To Improve
1. Identify wrong thoughts about yourself
Recognize the fallacies concerning your self-image.
These may include misconceptions/assumptions such as:
– “He/she thinks I’m stupid, so everyone thinks I am stupid.”
– “I failed in this, so I am a failure.”
Psychology tells us that a human perceives negativity faster than they do positive ones. Not only that, but we also focus more attention on them.
To add to this, negative words and criticism affect us badly and seemingly much more than compliments do.
2. Take an Honest Self-Assessment.
List down a set of your own strengths and weaknesses. Be sure that your assessment is based upon objective and honest observation. When you do this, you will capture the root of the negative self-talk and your perceived strengths.
This includes a behaviour I’ve repeatedly had to battle with – being overly critical of myself. It’s really easy to perceive weakness or failing where none exists or when I’ve completely overestimated it. Based on the number of conversations I’ve had with people, it seems like this is a really common thing for others too.
3. Seek Outside Input
It is normal to have a bias. I’m pretty sure everyone does. The tricky thing with our biases is, we are not always aware of them. That’s why it’s important to seek different opinions from people we trust.
Seek two or more people to give you their honest input. Their views will help validate or negate our self-perception.
However, when seeking input, here are some reminders.
– Allow them to be honest and listen to them
– Don’t filter the stuff you don’t like.
– Accept their opinions as opinions, even if they are uncomfortable
One great tool I have used is the JoHari Window. It’s an easy way to identify what you know about yourself that others can’t see, what others can see in you that you don’t see, and what you both see in you. A nice way to stocktake some of your characteristics or skills.
4. Take On the Challenge
Improving yourself may mean you need to stop doing certain things or starting on new ones.
Sometimes, you must take action by stepping out of your comfort zone if your challenge involves self-doubt and lack of self-confidence.
Whatever it is, go ahead and take on the challenge. That first step will be the hardest one but once you’ve done it, you’ve closed the gap on where you were – to where you want to be.
5. Change the external until it affects the internal
The saying, “fake it til you make it” kind of rings true. If you don’t feel like doing certain things, focus on the small actions and be intentional and deliberate. The more you do it, the more it becomes true to you. Those small actions, done often, will actually become a habit so you don’t even realise you’re capable and have already built up the skill.
Studies show that doing simple actions like raising your hands and adopting an open stance makes you feel more confident. Ever wondered why most businessmen have portraits with hands on their hips or sitting laidback with their legs in a wide figure four? These are power poses aimed to express confidence and authority!
There’s also cool research that suggests other people will manage their behaviours differently when you project more confidence.
Act confidently, and soon enough, you will really feel confident. Say more positive words towards yourself and others, and soon, you will fill the room with more positivity. In fact, studies show that positive self-talk has enormous benefits. We really should be doing lots more of it.
Perception of Others
Have you ever heard of the saying, “We judge others based on their actions and not on their intentions, while we judge ourselves based on our intentions and not on our actions?”
We tend to attribute people’s actions to their character while we attribute ours to external factors or situations outside our control. This is what we call a fundamental attribution error.
According to the Attribution Theory, we tend to underestimate external factors’ influence and overestimate the effect of internal factors when making judgments about other people’s behaviour.
Simply put, we are lenient with ourselves while holding people accountable for their actions.
Ahem! Double standards anyone?!
A manager might tell off people for passing work beyond the deadline and reason out personal matters when he fails to do his duties on time.
On the other side of the theory, individuals tend to attribute success to internal factors and use external factors as scapegoats. This is termed as self-serving bias.
Based on the same theory, here are some of the ways individuals judge other people.
Individuals may filter out sensory information based on their preferences, interest, and experiences. For example, if we like a particular individual (romantically or not), we can tend to focus on their positive aspects and ignore (or even fail to see) their negative aspects.
Individuals draw an impression about others based on a single characteristic. For example, someone lives in a very wealthy village.
One might assume that this person is eloquent, stylish, and elegant. We hold this assumption without actually knowing his or her background.
We evaluate other people’s characteristics by comparing them to others whom we recently encountered who have the same characteristics as them but are higher or lower.
For example, you were introduced to your friend’s boss and can’t help but compare how her boss is more accommodating and kind than yours.
Projection is a term in Psychology. It is a defense ego mechanism where we unconsciously“project” our negative characteristics and traits and attributing them to others.
A classic example that is often referred to is a cheating spouse accusing their partner of unfaithfulness. So the next time you get triggered by another person’s actions, better do some reflection first. It might be that you are projecting your negative traits on them.
This is judging an individual based on his or her idea of the group to which they belong, such as race, ethnicity, etc.
Western people may encounter a Chinese person and immediately assume that he is good at Math and runs a family business.
Hollywood plays a role in us learning about stereotypes. I remember being a kid and thinking that every Chinese person knew Karate thanks to the Karate Kid and Bruce Lee movies. In hindsight, really stupid I know, but such is the power of media in shaping our stereotypes.
How to Perceive Others Correctly
To be the best version of ourselves, we need to be able to perceive others correctly.
You’ll interact with people throughout your life, and misunderstandings will cause conflicts.
You can avoid most of these conflicts by being patient and learning to perceive others correctly.
How do you do this? By becoming aware of the many influences that affect our perception of others that will ultimately affect our behaviour towards them.
We should not only be aware of such filters but should also deliberately reflect and change them. I’ve found that taking small moments to reflect has really helped me in life. Below are three principles that are rooted in psychology which are critical for perceiving others correctly. They have the power to change your life and mindset in remarkable ways.
Develop Listening Skills
Sometimes, we never actually listen beyond the physical act of being present. Most of us think, “as long as I’m here, I’m listening.”
Listening is beyond hearing words but seeing the individual underneath them. I’ve found it’s often the words that aren’t said, that are equally important as those that are. Listening opens our perspective and enables us to see past our prejudices towards others.
The goal here is to continually try to understand the other person’s perspective. Because empathy is, in part, putting yourself in another’s shoes and trying to understand them.
Watch Out for Stereotypes
Be conscious of your own prejudices and stereotypes. Placing people who are different from us on stereotypes reduces their individuality and devalues them. This may also lead to having double standards.
Stereotypes can cripple your ability to build relationships or connect with others. A person may fit popular stereotypes and yet be very different.
While the flaws in some mainstream stereotypes are apparent for all to see, some others aren’t so visible. And these hidden ones have the potential to cause the most harm because we are unaware of them.
There’s no easy way to rid yourself of stereotypes. You simply have to begin by questioning the beliefs you hold about other individuals to determine where they come from.
Are they a figment of your imagination? Or have you experienced something that informed your case?
If your experiences line up with your beliefs, is it true for everyone or just a select few?
This is possibly the most powerful part of using perception to your advantage. It’s called introspection because you have to inspect internally.
You can use introspection to influence the two principles mentioned above. It can unroot deep stereotypes and prejudices you may hold towards other people and help you learn how to listen better.
Introspection can help reveal all these preconceived notions that you may have, whether physical or mental.
While we think that we see the world objectively, every individual perceives the world differently.
Everybody’s perception is influenced by many internal and external factors that give us a unique interpretation of the world and affect how we interact and behave towards others.
The good thing is that we can be aware of these influences and biases and start using perception to our and others’ benefit.
Ready to say goodbye to the prejudices and stereotypes you have? Finally decided to take a step away from the negativity and self-doubt? Take it slow. Take on the challenge of breaking-free from the shackles of your own limited lens. You’ll be surprised at the potential you and the people around you have.