Perception Does Not Equal Reality. Perception is More Important than Reality

Written by Eric M. Bailey

We’ve all heard the phrase “perception equals reality” or some derivative of it, right? Well, in “reality,” that phrase is a lie. Perception does not equal 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.

“Okay, Eric,” you might say. “But my perception is my reality!” I’m glad you brought that up. What the phrase “My perception is my reality” actually means is this: “My perception is the genesis of my worldview. My perception is the way I believe the world to be. My perception is the basis on which I am going to interact with the world.” Many people interchange the terms “truth,” “fact,” and “belief” because worldview is such a powerful force, which is the reason “truth” can be such a fluid concept in many contentious conversations. “If I don’t believe in something, it must not be true.” Or, “If I don’t believe it to be true, the facts don’t matter.”

To illustrate, is it perception or reality that makes you freak out because of that tiny displaced hair on your neck? Or was that feeling on your neck actually a small spider crawling across your skin, its thin delicate legs almost imperceptibly touching you, sending you a sudden signal to swat at your neck? The sensation you experience is real, but it’s based on a perception. There is no spider in reality, but you still adjust and protect your body based on a perception. You might even scratch an itch that materializes as you’re reading. In fact, as I’ve been writing this, I’ve scratched both sides of my neck, my right shoulder, my left hip, my calf, the back of my head, and my right shoulder—again! #HeebieJeebies Okay. MOVING ON.

Perception drove me to action. I perceived an itch, even though there really wasn’t anything there to cause it, and then I scratched. Perception guided my behavior, not reality.

Likewise, when someone says or does something crazy or unexpected, we say, “How could you possibly think that was the right thing to say/do?” or “How could you possibly see it that way?” That phrase, “How could you possibly?” seems completely benign on the surface, but the underlying meaning comes through loud and clear. The subtext of “How could you possibly…?” is “You’re an idiot.” We don’t often call people “stupid” to their face. We sure as heck think it though, don’t we? Sometimes we think it very hard! While our mouths are saying, “How could you possibly react that way?” our brains are thinking, “You idiot.”

This type of thinking happens all the time between bosses and subordinates. When a boss gives instructions to a team member, the instructions make perfect sense . . . to the boss. Because the boss can see it from her own perspective, her perception of the words she spoke perfectly convey what she was thinking in her head: “Sharon, please cut the sandwich into quarters and deliver it to Table Four.” Sharon cuts the sandwich into quarters diagonally, leaving the crusts on and delivering it on a saucer to Table Four. Her manager, however, meant “Cut off the crusts, cut it into quarter squares, and deliver it on a lunch plate with fries.” The problem is that Sharon perceived the words differently than her manager intended them. Sharon interpreted her perception into her actions. 

Far too often, the employee fails to meet the expectations of the manager because she doesn’t truly understand what her manager said or wanted. Who is at fault? It doesn’t really matter, because in most workplace scenarios like this, it’s the manager who has the power. The manager can get frustrated at her employee for not meeting her expectations, and the employee is at her manager’s mercy to figure it out. If the manager wants better outcomes, however, it’s she who has the opportunity to communicate differently so that her words are perceived differently.

The point is that it’s hard for us to understand that another person perceives the world differently from us. We understand differences in perception conceptually, but when we’re tested in a practical situation, things become more difficult. This happens because we spend our entire lives interacting with the world around us through our perceptions, and our perceptions guide our behaviors. 

The lesson here illustrates what I call the second Principle of Human Understanding: “Perception Does Not Equal Reality; Perception Is More Important Than Reality.” In my book, The Cure for Stupidity: Using Brain Science to Explain Irrational Behavior at Work, I develop the Principles of Human Understanding, a communication methodology that provides twenty-two distinct tools that you can use to understand the behaviors, decisions, and motivations of the people around you so that you can have more meaningful and effective interactions with them. Additionally, each Principle of Human Understanding, which I’ve classified under four main categories—Observation Trap PrinciplesOrientation Trap PrinciplesDecision Trap Principles, andAction Trap Principles—will help you understand yourself, so you can take a self-aware approach to interacting with the world around you. 

Eric M. Bailey, President of Bailey Strategic Innovation Group, helps people experience how brain science can change every relationship in their life. His unique methodology engages emotional feelers, analytical thinkers, and everyone in-between. With a master’s degree in Leadership and Organizational Development from Saint Louis University, Eric is a lifelong learner of human and organizational behavior. He works with Google, the US Air Force, Los Angeles County, the Phoenix PD, and many others around the world. This blog is an excerpt from his bestselling book, The Cure for Stupidity: Using Brain Science to Explain Irrational Behavior at Work.

Written by Eric M. Bailey