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Behavioural Science

Do Facts Matter When Perception Is Not Reality?

In our post-truth age, many think facts no longer matter. But they do. Perception is not reality. It’s our own invisible hazmat suit that engulfs us.

Mark Twain is credited with the infamous phrase “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story,” and never has that sentiment resonated with so many. We all know people who successfully embellish a story to both our amusement and that of the crowd. We all know of people who have outright lied to get what they want. Both politicians and journalists are renowned for stretching the truth or of being selective with their choice of fact. But, does it matter if the story is true or not? Is it ok to twist the facts to tell a good story or to prove a point? Do facts matter?

Most of us would say that of course they matter. Honesty is the best policy and deception is the fruit of the devil. But, what happens when you don’t even realise that you are doing it? Does it still count?

Fact 1 – we don’t always make decisions based on facts. We make them based on our emotions and deeply held conscious or subconscious biases. We are very adept at disregarding or ignoring facts that disagree or challenge our view of the world, and proficient at recognising those that enable us to continue to view the world in a way that kowtows to our own prejudices and preconceived beliefs.

Fact 2 – we prefer to be around people who make our lives easy, who hold similar views and tastes, and for the most part tend to agree with us. We’re not keen on spending time with people or data sources that make us feel uncomfortable or uncertain about our views.

Fact 3 – our conscious perception of the world around us is fluid! It’s the lens through which we view reality. We’re incapable of being objective in even the most mundane circumstances. Our awareness is informed by a combination of factors – our sense of confidence, our energy levels, our fears and our desires. We see the world through our own constantly fluctuating lens.

Why do we do this? Why are we so susceptible, gullible even? What screws up our decision making?

1) Confirmation bias – we seek out and prioritise information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs whilst ignoring or even dismissing opinions that differ. We listen only to information that corroborates our preconceptions, and the effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs.

2) In-group bias – our tendency to favour our own group above that of any other. The group identity becomes our identity. Their views = our views.

3) Blind-spot bias – we fail to notice that our perception and views could be a little bit biased, but are excellent at identifying it in others!

4) Conservatism bias – we don’t fundamentally like change! We tend to prioritise previous facts over new and emerging ones. Darwinism or the theory of evolution was first mooted in 1859, and still hasn’t been accepted as fact in some quarters!

5) Negativity bias – we prioritise and pay more attention to bad news; apparently due to our limited attention span we equate bad news as being more important. This probably served us well several centuries ago but, perhaps not quite so much these days!

At the end of the day, emotions trump facts. That then leads us all to have some intriguing but frankly misinformed views on the world. The latest Ipsos MORI ‘Perils of Perception’ study highlights once again how wrong people in 40 countries can be on key global issues and features of the population in their own country, ably demonstrating that at least for the questions asked, perception is clearly not reality nor in some cases even close!

Sadly, the most often incorrect questions are those that are widely discussed in the media; for example, what proportion of the population is Muslim, and how wealthy are people. This is partially due to our ability to over-estimate what we worry about, but also due to the culpability of all levels of the media chasing headlines rather than facts.

Ten questions are asked, out of which five are verifiable factual questions: What do you think the current population of your country is? Out of every 100 people, about how many do you think are Muslim? What percentage of total annual GDP do you think is spent on health expenditure each year? Out of every 100 households, how many are owned by someone who lives there? What percentage of total household wealth do you think the least wealthy 70% own?

From these, a measure of how accurate the population is can then be calculated, giving us the Index of Ignorance. The Netherlands are the most accurate, followed by Great Britain then South Korea. India is the least accurate followed by China and Taiwan. The US is the 5th least accurate!

How does this affect us on a daily basis? On a subconscious level, we are all convinced that our personal beliefs are the ones that are true and accurate. But do you recognise any of these common ways that demonstrate that perception is not necessarily reality?

– Miscommunication – what I thought is not necessarily what I said, and what I said is not necessarily what I meant!

– Worry and anxiety – the disconnect between the likelihood of something happening and it actually happening!

– Misinterpreting a situation – what you see is not necessarily what is actually happening!

– Overly optimistic or pessimistic views on how the world works

– And the biggie, misattribution of motives – if you’re not clear on why you do what you do, why do you think that you’re good at understanding the motives of others?

Realistically though, what can we do about it?

1) Think hard about an issue or challenge. Look in the mirror and unpack exactly how you are feeling. Are you clear about what is being asked? Is your take accurate in reality?

2) Consider a broad range of opinions from a diverse audience.

3) Examine the pros and cons of each argument.

4) When presented with data that conflicts with your original view, consider it before rejecting it outright. It’s hard to admit you were wrong or ill-informed as it interferes with your ego. But give it a go!

5) Open your eyes. Don’t rely too heavily on other people’s opinions. Weigh up all of the information available yourself.

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