About a year ago, a craze swept the world: arguing whether this dress is blue or gold:
To me, the dress is clearly gold; to my daughter, it is clearly blue. We both swore we were right, and nothing either of us said could convince the other of bad eyesight. Truth is like that. Actual truth is largely irrelevant (the manufacturer claims the dress is really blue, although I don’t believe him); it is our perception of truth that really matters. That perception is the result of one’s prior experiences (or in the case of the famous dress, physical differences in the viewers’ eyes). And this is where we sometimes get into trouble. Different persons will interpret facts differently, based on their own prior experiences, which leads one person to question the knowledge, sincerity or credibility of the other.
The movie, The Truman Show,* tells the story of Truman Burbank, an insurance adjuster, who is an ordinary man living an ordinary life – or at least that’s his perception. The reality is, the place where Truman lives is a large TV studio with hidden cameras everywhere. All the people around him are really just actors playing parts in a reality TV show. But Truman’s reality is real to him, and that’s what matters. It is the only life he has ever known, being born on the TV show. For Truman’s truth (reality) to change, his perception of his life must change. Here is the final scene of the movie where Truman changes his perception of his entire life, and thus changes his truth:
If we want to change the world, then, we need to change our own or others’ perceptions of the world. Here are some examples from psychological studies of how our perceptions about ourselves can change the “truth” about ourselves:
- Japanese researchers blindfolded 13 students and told them their right arms were being rubbed with poison ivy. The right arm of all these students broke out in a rash, even though the plant used was just a harmless plant, not poison ivy. More remarkable, the researchers rubbed actual poison ivy on the left arms of these same 13 students but told them it was a harmless plant. Only two of the students’ left arms broke out in a rash, although all were highly allergic to poison ivy.
- Half of the cleaning staffs at seven different hotels were told how many calories their daily activities burned, and that vacuuming was similar to a cardio workout. The other half of these staffs were told nothing. During the study, those who had been primed to think of their work as exercise actually lost weight and their cholesterol levels dropped, even though they did no exercise outside of their work.
- A group of Asian women were given similar math tests on two separate occasions. Before the first test, these women were told to think about the fact that they were women taking a math test (and so, according to the stereotype, worse at math than men). Before the second test, they were to focus on the fact that they were Asian (and again according to the stereotype, better at math than other ethnic groups). These women performed far better on the second test than the first.
As Christof, the creator of The Truman Show in the movie says, “We accept the reality of the world in which we’re presented. It’s as simple as that.”
One potential problem with simply accepting the reality presented to us is that those perceptions often result in self-fulfilling prophecies. Because perceptions lead us to see the world in a certain way, we look for proof that our perceptions are accurate. Psychologists call this “confirmation bias.” The movie, Truth** portrays the attempts of newsman, Dan Rather, and his producer, Mary Mapes, to bring down a sitting U.S. President, running for re-election, by breaking the story that George W. Bush had gone AWOL while serving in the Texas Air National Guard. There was only one problem: the story was untrue. Rumors were flying that, thirty years previously, President Bush had joined the Texas Air National Guard to avoid the draft, and as the son of a former congressman who later became U.S. President, had received special treatment by the Guard. All Rather and Mapes needed to do was find evidence the rumors were true. Here is a short clip from the movie that sets out Mapes’ point of view from the outset of their investigation:
Mapes didn’t like men who abused their power. She saw President Bush as one of those, and set out to find the evidence that would confirm her perception of him.
Mapes and Rather found their evidence in memos written by Bush’s commanding officer, Jerry Killian, who was now conveniently dead. These memos showed Bush disobeying Killian’s direct orders to fulfill even minimal requirements of the Guard, followed by pressure from those higher up the command chain to let the infractions slide. But these memos were supposedly written in 1972, before the development of word processors, and a close look at the memos showed the words were proportionately spaced (which was impossible using the typewriters of the day). In addition, the memos were written in fonts that did not exist in 1972. And then it got worse. Another journalist noted that one of the memos mentions a commanding officer who had already retired. Another had an old address that Bush had stopped using before the memo was supposedly written. Killian’s entire family expressed doubt about their legitimacy. Even some of the experts that CBS had used to review the memos raised some concerns, but Rather, Mapes and all of CBS ignored them. As good reporters, Mapes and Rather should have easily noticed the flaws in their “evidence” but they didn’t because they had already concluded that President Bush was “guilty” and so saw the memos only from that perspective.
In the recent movie, The Girl on the Train,*** the suspense of the entire movie is based on perceptions of the truth versus actual reality. Since many of you might not have seen it yet, I won’t give away any of the details, but here is a scene where Rachel (the girl on the train) and Detective Riley of the police have different perspectives about the same event:
You’ll have to see the movie (or read the book) to learn whose perspective is the accurate one, but both characters look for evidence that their perspective is the right one. Watch The Girl on the Train and watch or re-watch The Truman Show from the perspective of perspectives, and you’ll see how the truth changes when the characters’ perspectives change.
Unfortunately our actions are often no different than these movie characters. We are so intent on finding the evidence to prove our assertions that we often miss things that are right in front of us. Psychologists call this inattentional or perceptional blindness. A famous psychology experiment consists of a video of some athletes standing in a circle passing a basketball. Participants watching the video are asked to count the number of times the basketball is passed between two of the athletes. As the video progresses, the task gets a harder when the athletes start switching places as they pass the basketball. After the video ends, the experimenter asks the participants how many passes they had counted. Then the experimenter asks what else they noticed in the video. Usually, the participants don’t notice anything else. What about the man in the gorilla suit who stands in the middle of the circle beating his chest? No one ever sees him. The experimenter plays back the video, and the participants are dumbfounded to now plainly see the gorilla they had missed before. When we take confirmation bias and add to it perceptional blindness, suddenly our perceptions of truth can lead us very far from reality.
So the next time you are talking to a family member, friend, neighbor or work associate about religion, politics or any other subject, and you think you are speaking THE TRUTH, remember the other person most-likely feels the same way about their side. Because everyone is different, with different backgrounds and experiences, our perceptions of truth are different. If you want to change someone’s truth, you must change that person’s perceptions. And that starts with understanding where the other person is coming from. But before you go about changing the world by changing others’ perceptions, keep in mind one of my favorite sayings, “Beware of half-truths, for you might have the wrong half.”
*The Truman Show
- Production: Paramount Pictures, Scott Rudin Productions
- Directed: Peter Weir
- Screenplay: Andrew Niccol
- Starring: Jim Carrey, Ed Harris and Laura Linney
- Release Date: October 9, 1998
- Production: Sony Pictures Classics, Echo Lake Entertainment, RatPac Entertainment
- Directed: James Vanderbilt
- Screenplay: James Vanderbilt (based on the book by Mary Mapes)
- Starring: Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, and Dennis Quaid
- Release Date: October 30, 2015
***The Girl on the Train
- Production: Amblin Entertainment; DeamWorks SKG; and Marc Platt Productions
- Directed: Tate Taylor
- Screenplay: Erin Cressida Wilson (based on the book by Paula Hawkins)
- Starring: Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett, and Rebecca Ferguson
- Release Date: October 7, 2016
- Achor, The Happiness Advantage, Crown Business (Random House), 2010
- McCardle, The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success, Viking Penguin, 2014
- Covey, The Divine Center, Bookcraft, 1982
- Banyai, Zoom, Viking, 1995