Never Underestimate the Importance of Perception

Which line is longer? You may think it’s the middle line because the arrow points jut out.  But the truth is, they are all the same size!   You might not have figured it out if it was not pointed out to you. We tend to hang on to our initial perception of a situation or a problem, because we believe in deciding things as soon as we can.  In some things, such as the belief that grandparents are allowed to spoil their grandkids, you will run into no arguments. But in other things, a little perspective can help immensely.

Optical illusion using lines to show perspective

The economy has several measures of progress and each of us uses the one which support our perceptions of growth or decline A current trend since the pandemic illustrates how critical perceptions can affect our opinions and policies. For instance, income inequality is increasing as evidenced by the fact that 69 percent of the total wealth in the United States was owned by the top 10 percent of earners. In comparison, the lowest 50 percent of earners only owned 2.5 percent of the total wealth. and that many Americans don’t have $400 to pay for an emergency. On the other hand, the collective net worth of the bottom one-fifth went up from $3.3 trillion in 2019 to $4.2 trillion at the end of the second quarter of 2022, indicating they can finance a better lifestyle.

What is critical is that we understand our perceptions and their impact on our decisions, activities, and behavior.

A critical factor is our perceptions of the presenter, the environment and the communication. Licensing agreements, celebrity endorsements and great environments are all designed to make the audience comfortable with presentations, but we seldom acknowledge how they affect our individual behavior. It’s great to have a convention in Honolulu to present your ideas, but if everything about the presentation is solid, it should work just as well in Dubuque, IA or Nome, AK.  Environment is important but it should supplement and enhance a convincing presentation, and not be used to make up for incomplete or inadequate data.  For instance, a steakhouse can have the right look, but if the meat is not tender and does not deliver the expected flavor, no one is going to dine there after a while; they might find the local diner more appealing because you get what you are looking for in a meal.

Cartoon with bearded diner telling the waiter "You probably don't recognise me - I was clean shaven when you took my order."

Our perceptions frequently exclude key data or are based on highly uncertain information. While they are present in our environment and affect our decisions, we usually avoid consideration of issues like religion, intelligence, politics, wealth, sex, morality, and appearance in our discussions. Part of that is simply out of politeness, but it never hurts to take that into consideration when deciding on a course of action or a strategy to take.  In contrast, we may express opinions about issues like climate change, politics, immigration, electric cars and artificial intelligence with insufficient knowledge or analysis.  Again, we often let our initial perceptions do the analyzing for us.   Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce are great football players, but do they really know so much about life insurance that you would automatically go with State Farm?  One would hope you would do as much homework on which insurance company to go with as they did as to which insurance company to endorse!  After all, they don’t want to waste their time and money either. 

One of the most significant aspects of behavior is our perception of information. For example, I believe people don’t take enough risk. How much freedom do you allow innovative people to break rules?  When do you provide support versus challenging subordinates and colleagues? While there may be analytical solutions to some of these, our predispositions are frequently more important in determining how we respond.  But thinking outside the box, stepping away from perceptions, can lead to greater clarity.  Risk does not always mean throwing a dart blindfolded; it simply means going against what you consider the norm, through research and analysis.  Remember what Davy Crockett said:

"Be always sure you are right, then go ahead." - Davy Crockett

Bias is critical issue in perceptions. Bias is one of the greatest complications when it comes to accuracy in the scientific analysis of decisions. This includes statistical problems like sampling, measurement, and development of information. For example, assessing Covid accurately is problematic due to varying demographics such as age, race, and other factors that convolute the analysis. In many cases, these can be understood, but are still challenging.

Have you considered unconscious bias training?

I also believe that social bias can be more impactful than statistical bias. This includes our preconceived perceptions and assumptions. I’m always amazed that many programmed employee selection tools outperform interviews especially in jobs requiring specific skills. Such tests remove things like unconscious age, sex, and racial discrimination.  At the end of the day, you want the best person to handle the responsibilities you give them, and you want to remove anything that impedes that decision.  Again, what seems like a risk has been whittled down to where the risk is minimal.

Cultural and environmental factors also affect bias. Dress, demographics, weather, location, and culture all affect perceptions in the decision-making process. These can also be used to your advantage in talking to colleagues by increasing bonding with similar people. Whenever I meet someone who is also from the Southside of Chicago, agreement on differences becomes much easier.

Style and personality greatly affect perceptions. Race, sex and age are the most common factors. Differentiating personality types like “right brain or left brain” or analytical versus creative greatly affects perceptions. For example, we greatly underestimate the positive or negative impact of using math in many arguments. 

We also need to consider the timing of perceptions. In general, the audience, whether on the internet or in person, forms perceptions of a presentation in the first 90 seconds. That does not seem to be much time, but the right focus and the right keywords can get the train going and make for an exciting ride.   Now, as an admitted nerd, my presentations can be a little boring. Thus, I try to improve their acceptance rate through tools like editors, comedy, stories, and pictures. I have learned the hard way that my poor spelling has sidetracked some of my best arguments.  Thank goodness someone invented spellcheckers!

Related: Testing Assumptions Can Result in Better Decisions