It’s not uncommon in an argument for one person to tell their side of the story and for the other person to tell a completely different version of the very same event. It can feel very frustrating and confusing when someone doesn’t see things the same way we do. How many times have we heard someone say, or have we said ourselves ‘let me tell you what really happened’.
One of the things that I’m interested in is how we experience, make sense of, and interact with the world around us. I find it fascinating that people can experience and respond to the same situation quite differently. A news article or movie that makes one person cry, might generate feelings of anger or terror in someone else.
Understanding how we perceive things is important because it drives our day to day behaviours and influences the choices we make. Our perceptions can impact our mood, our relationships, as well as how we see ourselves and others.
Perception involves receiving information through our senses, then organising and interpreting it, and turning it into something that’s meaningful to us. Often there is a lot of sensory information coming to us at the same time, so some of the data gets filtered out depending on a number of factors, including what we find important.
Our perceptions are a reflection of who we are
Our perceptions are shaped by a number of things including our early life experiences. If we’re born in the country we’re likely to have a different perception of what city life is like compared to those raised in the city.
It is during early childhood that we start to develop our self-concept, including beliefs that define who we are. For example, someone who may have been heavily criticised as a child, may grow up internalising the belief that they are ‘not good enough’. They might perceive themselves as less worthy than others which may impact various areas of their life such as work and their ability to sustain healthy relationships.
A child depends on their primary caregiver for important things like love, safety and acceptance. Children, unlike adults, do not have the cognitive capacity to recognise if something is true or not so they will often internalise the message, positive or negative, that their primary caregiver gives them.
Culture, gender and other influences on perception
Many factors such as culture, gender and age, can influence someone’s perception of another, including how they walk and talk, as well as how attractive they are. Research has also shown that different cultures perceive facial expressions differently (Jack, Caldar, Schyns, 2011). Our perceptions can also change depending on who we’re talking to. We might perceive swearing as annoying for one person but find it endearing for someone else. Age can also change our perceptions. For example, a twelve year old might perceive a particular rock band as ‘cool’ but not feel the same about the band when they are 40 years old.
Does having more information change your perception? Apparently so. Psychologists Dar-Nimrod, Zuckerman and Duberstein (2012) found that a sample of graduate students who were led to believe they had a genetic predisposition to alcoholism after providing a saliva sample, were more likely to hold the perception that they had less personal control over drinking and were more likely to enrol in a ‘responsible drinking’ workshop. They also showed an increase in negative mood.
Say that you notice a colleague at work become standoffish over time. They rarely say hello anymore, are snappy and get annoyed at the smallest things. How do you feel? Are you angry with them or do you stay up all night worrying that you’ve offended them in some way? What if I told you that your colleague has been going through a hard time, that their child was recently diagnosed with cancer, do you feel any differently towards them?
In relationships, we might find that we’re not attracted to someone initially but later, as we get to know more about them, our attraction might grow.
Perception and growth
If our perceptions can have such a powerful impact on our behaviour and mood, it might be useful to remind ourselves that just because we think something, it doesn’t necessarily make it true. Depending on our history and life experiences, each one of us sees the world through different lenses.
Because perception has such a great influence on many areas of our life, it is useful to know that many of our unhelpful perceptions are changeable. While it isn’t easy, below are a few ways in which this process can happen.
New experiences: Given that we are constantly engaged in the process of forming perceptions, it’s possible that we can change them through new experiences. For example, having the experience of a loving relationship, might help change a negative perception of yourself as not being loveable.
Gathering new information: Perceptions can change if we continue to gather information about a situation or person and our original assumptions no longer make sense to us. We have to be willing to listen to and take in new information to do this.
Challenging unhelpful thinking: As outlined in my previous blog on Challenging Unhelpful Thoughts for Depression, perceptions can change by challenging unhelpful negative thoughts or cognitive distortions.
It’s not always easy to look at things from another perspective and we often resist because it’s easier to stay with what’s familiar to us, but it can be an important part of loving yourself and self-growth. If you’re feeling stuck, seeing a psychologist might help.
Maria Scoda is a psychologist in Sydney CBD.
This post is an opinion piece and is for informational purposes only. It does not address people’s individual circumstances or needs and it is not a substitute for professional help. Please see a health care professional if you are struggling. External links have been provided for convenience. They are created and maintained by other organisations and I cannot control or guarantee the accuracy, relevance, timeliness, or completeness of this outside information.