Perception Checking

21 Feb 2017

We think we see the world as it is. But we actually see it through our limited perceptions and stories we construct to explain it.

We develop narratives about who we are, who other people are, and what events and communication mean. We’re on a constant quest to explain things to ourselves.

Each of us was raised differently, had vastly different experiences, came from different cultures and were exposed to different kinds of information, so we all created our thinking patterns separately and distinctly.

No wonder we have such a hard time understanding each other. “How could you POSSIBLY think THAT!?” we often ask.

We forget we have limited perceptions, and over-trust our impressions.

Even the Bible points this out, saying we only see as if looking at a reflection and knowing in part.*

That is why ten people can witness a crime and all report a different story. It’s also why ten million people can watch the same television event and all have a distinct experience.

It helps if we break down the process into a simple model:

  1. We are stimulated through our senses. What we observe (notice) is selectively based on what grabs our attention, meets a need, or is enjoyable.
  2. We then organize what we have sensed into thinking structures that make sense to us. Swiss developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, called these knowledge or mental schemata that we developed from our unique experiences and what sociologists, Berger and Luckmann, called social construction.**
  3. After that we interpret; we assign meaning to what we sensed. 
Perception States

We confuse these stages, especially observation and interpretation.

I understand how challenging this can be, especially in relationships.

I have a good friend who is very different than me. We see the world in vastly different ways, and we make decisions based on extremely different criteria. We often don’t “get” each other, which has a nasty way of building tension between us. We miss-attribute each other, inferring meaning that is sometimes completely opposite of what the other intended! Ugh!

In my college classroom, I hold up two fingers then ask my students, “What do you observe?” They shout out various things, like “Two,” “Peace,” and “Victory.” Then I ask them again. What do you observe? It usually takes a few silent seconds of looking into their baffled faces before I reveal the answer. “The teacher is holding up two fingers.”

Then I ask what this means (interpretation). They repeat their first responses: “Two,” “Peace,” and “Victory.” I point out that observation and interpretation are very different things. Oh how quick we are to jump to the interpretation!

There are a few principles that can help us be healthier in our thinking about situations and each other:

  1. Realize we have limited perceptions and sometimes-inaccurate interpretations.
  2. Exercise humility to realize we never have the full picture.
  3. Reduce assumptions. What our friend intended to communicate may not be what we assumed at all. And we all know what happens when we assume—we make an ASS out of U and ME.
  4. Ask for clarification. This is called perception checking. We may find that what we interpreted was completely misguided. This helps us avoid misattribution—when we attribute incorrect meaning to a situation.
  5. Consider alternative interpretations. Is it possible someone meant something other than what you interpreted?
  6. Use more provisional language. Instead of using strong language like, “I know,” use phrases like, “It seems to me,” or “I suspect.”

*1 Corinthians 13:12 The Bible (NIV)

**Berger, P. & Luckmann, T. published their seminar book, The Social Construction of Reality, in 1966. It’s a very academic read, but will change how you see the world.

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