Monday Mornings with Madison


In philosophy, reality is the state of things as they actually exist, rather than how they appear or are thought to be. In broader terms, reality includes everything that is and has been, whether or not it can be seen or understood. Perception, on the other hand, is the process of using our senses to accumulate information about our surroundings. Each being’s perception is unique. For example, even animals perceive the world around them differently. A study of nature shows that certain animals perceive the world in ways different than people. Snakes perceive it in the form of heat spots. Dogs perceive it as a cloud of smells. Bees perceive it divided into many sectors. We all perceive the world in different ways according to our sensations.

Your Perceptions Become Your Reality

Philosopher Andy Clark explained that perception is not simply a process where minute details are put together to form larger wholes. Instead, our brains use what he calls predictive coding. It starts with broad limits and expectations about the world around us. As expectations are met, our brains make more detailed predictions. In a rapid cycle, errors lead to new predictions. This is how we learn.

Clark concludes, though, that in day-to-day life there is really no completely “unbiased, unfiltered” perception. Instead, there is a great deal of back-and-forth between our perceptions and expectations. The things we perceive often shape new beliefs, but those perceptions are filtered through our existing beliefs. That would explain the self-fulfilling prophecy. If new beliefs are shaped by perceptions that are shaped in part on existing beliefs, then perceptions feed on themselves. That pushes people to further believe that their perceptions are reality. In other words, their perceptions become their reality. That is why Albert Einstein said “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” In part, he meant that no one ever really experiences reality. Instead, all beings’ reality are tainted by their perception of it.

Misperceptions Can’t Outrun Reality Forever

The problem is that the “perception is reality” mantra lures people to abandon critical thinking and disconnects them from the three-dimensional world. Instead of a pocket watch swinging in front of a trusting gaze, the message that “perception is reality” snakes its way into all of our reasoning. Case in point. During its heyday, this “Perception is reality” mantra was said about Enron. “Enron is not such a good company but it’s a great stock.” They meant that even though the fundamentals of the company were not really solid, the public’s perception of the company’s worth was golden. That was true for a while. Enron’s stock soared. However, the public’s perception of Enron was a misperception. Perception sought to evade the truth, deny the facts and look the other way. But eventually the reality of how businesses and economies work challenged the perceptions. Enron’s collapse said loud and clear that perception was not reality. Reality was only kept at bay for so long.

The same was true of the recent real estate bubble and then bust. The perception that “real estate prices never decline” and “everyone can afford to buy a home” led sensible people to ignore facts and truth. The perception was that the hottest real estate market in history would go on forever. Perception sought to ignore or evade the truth, deny the facts and persuade people to look the other way, but reality eventually caught up with the misperceptions.

The issue of “perception is reality” affects every person and every company. Perception is important. But reality is also important. It is not enough for a company to give the perception that it has solid products or provides excellent service. If the reality behind the perception does not match, the truth will eventually surface. The same is true about people. A person may be perceived as being honest, reliable, trustworthy and wise. But if they really aren’t, these misperceptions typically don’t outrun reality forever. Just ask any elected public official who was ousted when details about their personal life revealed that the public’s perception was not reality.

Perceptions are Really Important

Yet, when it comes to work and life, perceptions can dramatically make or break a business or a career. Whether the perceptions are accurate or not, actions that give the perception of a lack of professionalism or integrity, laziness, rudeness, or inferior standards, whether real or not, can make or break a company or career. That is why companies spend a great deal of time and money developing and protecting their brand and reputation. In fact, branding and reputation management have become specialty areas for PR experts. Indeed, in marketing and communications, things are often not what they seem. Marketers and magicians rely on this fact to make you see things – the way they want you too see them. Communicators and marketers understand that whether a perception is or isn’t reality, it doesn’t take much for that perception to spread thanks to social media sites such as Yelp and microsites such as blogs. One person’s perception can be shared with the masses, becoming reality for hundreds, thousands or millions quickly and expediently.

Case in point. Dell Computers experienced this “Perception is reality” dilemma first-hand during social media’s early days. In 2005, Jeff Jarvis, a computer programmer, used strong language to express his dissatisfaction with his Dell computer (“a lemon”) on his blog, Buzzmachine. The story grew legs, caused Dell stocks to plunge temporarily, and was eventually featured in a cover story in BusinessWeek Magazine. It took Dell years of reputation management, including personal involvement by Michael Dell, to repair its tarnished image. Jarvis’ perception of Dell may not have been reality, but it was really important to the company’s well-being. 

So what is the takeway? Perception may not necessarily be reality, but it becomes a person’s reality as influenced by prior beliefs, values and new information. However, perceptions must eventually align with reality, as reflected by truth and facts. For businesses and individuals alike, it is important to generate positive perceptions. It is also equally important to ensure that the perceptions are actually real. Only then can a business or career truly thrive without the risk of imploding when perception meets reality.

“Because our entire universe is made up of consciousness, we never really experience the universe directly we just experience our consciousness of the universe, our perception of it, so right, our only universe is perception.” Alan Moore

© 2011, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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