Perception Is Not Reality (2023)

We hear it all the time, in the business world, in the political arena, in marriages, anytime there is a disagreement or conflict: “Perception is reality.” This aphorism is often used to justify a perception that may be objectively unjustifiable or just plain out of touch with reality. It’s employed as a cudgel to beat others into accepting someone’s preferred so-called reality. At a more philosophical level, this adage creates a sense of relativism (think squishiness) in circumstances that are more likely absolute (think “the world is flat”).

Let me state with an absolute sense of reality and without any perceptual flexibility at the outset that perception is NOT reality. As I am a word guy, meaning I believe that words powerfully shape our attitudes, beliefs, and, well, perceptions, let me start off by showing why perceptions and reality are different. Here is a dictionary definition of perception:

  • “The way of regarding, understanding, or interpreting something; a mental impression.”

And here is the dictionary definition of reality:

  • “The world or the state of things as they actually exist… existence that is absolute, self-sufficient, or objective, and not subject to human decisions or conventions.”

Clearly, perception and reality have very different meanings. The former occurs entirely in the mind in which mental gymnastics can turn any belief into reality. The other exists completely outside of the mind and can’t be easily manipulated. To conflate perception with reality is to reject the Enlightenment and harken back to the Middle Ages.

Perception is not reality, but, admittedly, perception can become a person’s reality (there is a difference) because perception has a potent influence on how we look at reality.

Think of it this way. Perception acts as a lens through which we view reality. Our perceptions influence how we focus on, process, remember, interpret, understand, synthesize, decide about, and act on reality. In doing so, our tendency is to assume that how we perceive reality is an accurate representation of what reality truly is. But it’s not. The problem is that the lens through which we perceive is often warped in the first place by our genetic predispositions, past experiences, prior knowledge, emotions, preconceived notions, self-interest, and cognitive distortions.

Daniel Kahneman, the noted psychologist who received the 2002 Nobel Prize winner in economics, created a veritable cottage industry by identifying what he termed cognitive biases (there are 100s) that are systematic ways in which humans create subjective social reality that deviates from objective reality.

I appreciate that some philosophers argue that reality doesn’t actually exist, but, instead, is a subjective construction because we don’t experience reality directly. Rather, we experience reality through senses that limit how we process reality. For example, humans only see a circumscribed spectrum of colors or hear a defined range of sounds. But, just because we can’t perceive a dog whistle doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist in reality. Thankfully, we have the technology in most situations that can objectively measure reality (of course, disbelievers could argue that reading the instruments requires perception, thus “proving” their point that perception is reality, but let’s not go there).

A key question to ask is: “What’s wrong with perception diverging from reality?” What if I perceive the world in a way that is out of touch with reality? As with most things in life, this question demands a nuanced answer that involves degree rather than kind. For example, there is a psychological theory that posits what are called positive illusions, which involve holding a slightly inflated view of one’s capabilities, which can have psychological and practical benefits (e.g., gives hope, enhances persistence).

However, if the perception deviates too far from reality when it shifts from mild illusion to delusion, it can be a liability (e.g., set unattainable goals, lack of preparation for a difficult task). In fact, a substantial disconnect between perception and reality can lead people to a complete inability to function (severe mental illness is an example).

At a societal level, when different individuals or constituencies develop perceptions that are so far apart, one immense problem is that no common ground can be found. This disconnect is exemplified in our current political climate where people of different political stripes have such diametrically opposed perceptions that it becomes impossible to orchestrate consensus or govern. The result is paralysis (Congress) or hostility (hate crimes). Going to extremes, a massive divide between perceptions in a country would likely lead to a slow, but steady, disintegration of the institutions that hold a society together (dystopian themes in literature and film or, well, our world today).

The challenge we face with our own thinking, as well as the thinking of others, is how to ensure that perceptions remain close to reality. This alignment is essential for us to live in the real world, find consensus with others, and maintain the individual, governmental, and societal structures that are necessary for life as we know it to exist. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Don’t assume that your perceptions are reality (just your reality)
  • Be respectful of others’ perceptions (they may be right)
  • Don’t hold your perceptions too tightly; they may be wrong (admitting it takes courage)
  • Recognize the distortions within you that may warp your perceptions (seeing them will better ground your perceptions in reality rather than the other way around)
  • Challenge your perceptions (do they hold up under the microscope of reality?)
  • Seek out validation from experts and credible others (don’t just ask your friends because they likely have the same perceptions as you)
  • Be open to modifying your perceptions if the preponderance of evidence demands it (rigidity of mind is far worse than being wrong)

The next time someone tosses that tired trope—“but perception is reality”—in defense of the indefensible, you stand up and tell them that it might be their perception, but it is not reality.


Perception Is Not Reality? ›

If you dive into the definitions of the two words “perception” and “reality,” you will see that reality excludes perception. Perception: A way of understanding or interpreting things. Reality: The state of things as they actually exist, rather than as they may be perceived or might be imagined.

Is perception actually reality? ›

“Perception is merely a lens or mindset from which we view people, events, and things.” In other words, we believe what we perceive to be accurate, and we create our own realities based on those perceptions. And although our perceptions feel very real, that doesn't mean they're necessarily factual. Dr.

Why is perception different from reality? ›

Perception is the way how a person understands something and different people may have different perceptions for the same thing. Realty, on the other hand, is the truth and the actual existence of something. Perception may be controlled by external factors, but reality cannot be controlled by anyone or anything.

What is it called when your perception doesn t match reality? ›

In the field of psychology, cognitive dissonance is the perception of contradictory information and the mental toll of it.

What does false perception of reality mean? ›

Psychotic disorders or episodes arise when a person experiences a significantly altered or distorted perception of reality. Such distortions are often caused or triggered by hallucinations (false perceptions), delusions (false beliefs) and/or disrupted or disorganised thinking.

Can your perception be wrong? ›

Although our perception is very accurate, it is not perfect. Illusions occur when the perceptual processes that normally help us correctly perceive the world around us are fooled by a particular situation so that we see something that does not exist or that is incorrect.

Is there a gap between perception and reality? ›

We never see the world exactly the way it is because we construct our subjective reality. As a matter of fact, neuroscientists assert that there is no such thing as reality. There is only perception; and our perception is a subjective construction of our preferences, beliefs and opinions.

Which is greater perception or reality? ›

Perception is more important than reality. If someone perceives something to be true, it is more important than if it is in fact true. This doesn't mean you should be duplicitous or deceitful, but don't go out of your way to correct a false assumption if it plays to your advantage.

What is an example of a false perception? ›

Hallucinations (false perceptions) and delusions (false beliefs) are char- acteristic symptoms of schizophrenia. Typical hallucinations include: hearing people talking to you or about you, hearing a running commentary on your actions, and hearing your thoughts spoken aloud.

What is perception vs truth? ›

The book Perception vs. Truth is a means to examine our beliefs about reality and the stories that we tell ourselves, which create our perception of reality and hence create our experiences in life.

How do I fix my perception of reality? ›

Here are some tips to help you start changing your perceptions.
  1. Decide to be in charge of your life.
  2. Set goals for yourself and make sure they're attainable. ...
  3. Change your inner voice from, “I can't” to “I can”
  4. Visualize where you want to be and write it out.
Jun 16, 2015

How accurate is human perception? ›

Although our perception is very accurate, it is not perfect. Illusions occur when the perceptual processes that normally help us correctly perceive the world around us are fooled by a particular situation so that we see something that does not exist or that is incorrect.

Why do my actions contradict my thoughts? ›

Cognitive dissonance occurs when a person's behavior and beliefs do not complement each other or when they hold two contradictory beliefs. It causes a feeling of discomfort that motivates people to try to feel better. People may do this via defense mechanisms, such as avoidance.

Can your mind create a false reality? ›

Anxiety can be so overwhelming to the brain it alters a person's sense of reality. People experience distorted reality in several ways. Distorted reality is most common during panic attacks, though may occur with other types of anxiety. It is also often referred to as “derealization.”

Why do people perceive things differently? ›

People perceive things differently. We choose to select different aspects of a message to focus our attention based on what interests us, what is familiar to us, or what we consider important. Often, our listening skills could use improvement. Listening and thinking are directly related.

What is the wrong perception called? ›

1. illusion, hallucination, delusion refer to false perceptions or ideas.

What are the two types of wrong perception? ›

Both illusion and hallucination are perceptual disturbances. Hallucination is a false perception or wrong perception, in the absence of any object. On the other hand, the illusion is a false perception or perception in a wrong manner of a real object.

Why is perception deceiving? ›

We assume what we see, hear and feel is real. But our reality is really only our perception – and no two of us perceive things exactly the same way. Our brains create a model of our surroundings based on our sense of perception.

What is perception deception? ›

We define perceived deceit as occurring when a customer believes that an employee has intentionally tried to make them believe something that is untrue (DePaulo et al. 1989).

Who said perception becomes reality? ›

It was many years later, in the 1980s to be exact, that this debate took on a whole new meaning when the American political strategist Lee Atwater said simply and succinctly: “Perception is reality”.

What are examples of perception vs reality? ›

Your reality is only disrupted by factual evidence, for example— you could experience a freezing cold winter day, but your reality is different from the reality of global warming. Your perception could be that winter nights keep getting colder, when the temperature of the Earth is actually steadily increasing.

What percentage of reality do we perceive? ›

Explaining the science behind it, Dr Raj said that our eyes are not designed to see everything out there. In fact, we are only able to see visible light, which is a “tiny, tiny fraction of the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum”. He explained that humans can only see around 0.00035 per cent of reality.

What makes reality real? ›

Philosophers commonly define reality as a substance that actually exists in an external world. To be is real is to exist without the need to be proven to exist. If it is real, then it is just real.

Why is perception so powerful? ›

Perception isn't something we think about often, but it has a huge impact on our emotional state and our behavior. Our perception defines who we believe we are, how we believe our interactions with others should go, and how we believe the world should operate. We view all experiences and conflicts through this lens.

Is perception a delusion? ›

Delusional perception designates a sudden, idiosyncratic, and often self-referential delusion triggered by a neutral perceptual content. In classical psychopathology, delusional perception was considered almost pathognomonic for schizophrenia.

What are the five errors of perception? ›

It involves the following phenomena: primacy effect, selective perception, stereotyping, halo effect, projection and expectancy effect. They are the types of perceptual errors.

What lies beyond perception? ›

Reality Lies Beyond What We Can Perceive.

What is a good example of perception? ›

For example, upon walking into a kitchen and smelling the scent of baking cinnamon rolls, the sensation is the scent receptors detecting the odor of cinnamon, but the perception may be “Mmm, this smells like the bread Grandma used to bake when the family gathered for holidays.”

What's another word for perception? ›

Some common synonyms of perception are acumen, discernment, discrimination, insight, and penetration. While all these words mean "a power to see what is not evident to the average mind," perception implies quick and often sympathetic discernment (as of shades of feeling).

What is to lose the sense of reality? ›

What is it? Psychosis is often described as a "loss of reality" or a "break from reality" because you experience or believe things that aren't real. It can change the way you think, act, feel, or sense things. Psychosis can be very scary and confusing, and it can significantly disrupt your life.

What is perception over reality? ›

Perception acts as a lens through which we view reality. Our perceptions influence how we focus on, process, remember, interpret, understand, synthesize, decide about, and act on reality. In doing so, our tendency is to assume that how we perceive reality is an accurate representation of what reality truly is.

What will happen if we are without perception? ›

And without perception, our sensations would remain to be "unknown" to us since there is no mental processing of what we sense.

Did Einstein believe regarding human perception? ›

Einstein showed that our perception of reality is myopic, distorted due to our sluggishness; could we perceive motions with speeds close to the speed of light (186,000 miles per second), we would see objects shrinking in the direction of their motion, clocks slowing down, and masses increasing with speed.

Is perception based on intelligence? ›

The simple answer is this: Perception is the player's ability to spot and detect people or items, it has nothing to do with making intelligent decisions about those people or items. Investigation is the player's ability to put together clues and making deductions the others wouldn't make.

What are 7 signs of cognitive dissonance? ›

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Cognitive Dissonance?
  • Embarrassment over feeling wrong about the beliefs they previously held.
  • Shame or regret about past actions or decisions.
  • Guilt for hiding or something they believe is wrong.
  • Discomfort for doing something that contradicts what they believe.
Apr 5, 2023

Why do my thoughts confuse me? ›

There are several things that can cause confused thinking, including a head injury, infection, a reaction to medication, and of course things like recreational drugs, alcohol abuse, or not sleeping for several days.

Why am I blocking my thoughts? ›

Thought blocking occurs when someone loses a train of thought for no apparent reason, which may cause them to suddenly stop speaking. Thought blocking is not usually a cause for concern. It can happen to anyone at any time due to factors such as tiredness or stress.

Why does my brain make up things that never happened? ›

Neuroscientists say that many of our daily memories are falsely reconstructed because our view of the world is constantly changing.

Why do I feel like I'm in a false reality? ›

Depersonalization-derealization disorder occurs when you persistently or repeatedly have the feeling that you're observing yourself from outside your body or you have a sense that things around you aren't real, or both.

Can anxiety alter your perception? ›

According to a recent study, people with anxiety fundamentally have a different perception of the world. More specifically, anxious individuals have a more difficult time distinguishing between neutral, “safe” stimuli and emotionally-charged or threatening stimuli.

What are the 3 factors that influence perception? ›

One's attitudes, motivations, expectations, behavior and interests are some of the factors affecting perception.

Why does perception affect behavior? ›

How we perceive other people in our environment is also shaped by our values, emotions, feelings, and personality. Moreover, how we perceive others will shape our behavior, which in turn will shape the behavior of the person we are interacting with. One of the factors biasing our perception is stereotypes.

Can people change their perception? ›

Perception of the same stimulus varies because different people view it differently based on the contexts of their past and current references. Therefore, if we seek to change someone's perception or future expectation, we can change their current references or their interpretation of their prior references.

What is the primary error of perception? ›

A perceptual error is the inability to judge humans, things or situations fairly and accurately. Examples could include such things as bias, prejudice, stereotyping, which have always caused human beings to err in different aspects of their lives.

What is the most common disorders of perception? ›

Illusions can occur in delirium when the perceptual threshold is raised and an anxious and bewildered patient misinterprets stimuli. While visual illusions are the most common, they can occur in any modality.

Why is perception unreliable? ›

The biological nature of humans adds discrepancies to how we see the world, proving senses unreliable. Other senses such as smell and touch compensate and allow us to still experience the world in similar ways. Depends on lighting around the viewer, and what the viewer is thinking.

Is perception based on fact? ›

Most people believe their perception of a situation to be a reality, i.e., to be fact. They believe their interpretation of what happened– their perception of fact – to be fact. Facts, however, are the direct, objective observation of what happened, e.g., a deadline not met, a promise not delivered, a statement made.

Who says perception is reality? ›

It was many years later, in the 1980s to be exact, that this debate took on a whole new meaning when the American political strategist Lee Atwater said simply and succinctly: “Perception is reality”.

Are perceptions subjective True or false? ›

Perception is a subjective, active and creative process through which we assign meaning to sensory information to understand ourselves and others. It also includes how we respond to the information.

Why is perception biased? ›

It is a type of cognitive bias that occurs when we subconsciously form assumptions or draw conclusions based on our beliefs, expectations, or emotions. Perception bias works like a filter, helping us make sense of all the information we are exposed to in our surroundings.

Does our brain create reality? ›

Most of the time, the story our brains generate matches the real, physical world — but not always. Our brains also unconsciously bend our perception of reality to meet our desires or expectations.

Do we only see 1% of the world? ›

While we can see 100% of the visible spectrum – not 1% – we see very little of the total electromagnetic spectrum. And that share is even less than 1%. Light visible to humans makes up just 0.0035% of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Can your brain tell the difference between reality and imagination? ›

New experiments show that the brain distinguishes between perceived and imagined mental images by checking whether they cross a “reality threshold.” We rarely mistake the images running through our imaginations as perceptions of reality, although the same areas of the brain process both.

What did Einstein say about perception? ›

Einstein showed that our perception of reality is myopic, distorted due to our sluggishness; could we perceive motions with speeds close to the speed of light (186,000 miles per second), we would see objects shrinking in the direction of their motion, clocks slowing down, and masses increasing with speed.

What did Plato say about perception? ›

Plato's character Socrates suggests that knowledge is not perception because if “perceiving” is equivalent to “knowing,” then when one does not perceive a thing, he no longer possesses the knowledge of the thing that he perceives.

What did Einstein say about reality? ›

Summary: Albert Einstein once quipped, "Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one." The famous scientist might have added that the illusion of reality shifts over time.

Is perception a state of mind? ›

A mental state, or a mental property, is the state of mind of a person. Mental states comprise a diverse class, including perception, pain experience, belief, desire, intention, emotion, and memory.

Is perception the same as truth? ›

Perception is the process of considering, understanding, and interpreting something. Truth is an accepted belief.

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