Perception is Reality

A cautionary tale for the age of information overload

Perception is reality, as the old saying goes. A person’s experience is dictated more by what they perceive to be true than by what actually is true. But while that basic punchline has always been useful, it’s arguably more profound today than it’s ever been. In an age of information overload, you’d do well to take the old saying as cautionary advice.

Let’s assume you’re like most people who live a normal, unassuming life. You go to work, you drive a car, you go to the store.

Everywhere you go, you’re an average polite citizen -- you hold the door open for people, you wait patiently in the checkout line, and you’ve mastered the single-downward-nod half-smile you do when you make eye contact in passing someone on the sidewalk.

Then you go home, sit on the couch and start scrolling through your phone.

And your insides get twisted up in knots of anger and anxiety.

These emotions are no accident. The business models of both traditional and social media now depend on them. You’re facing big companies with big budgets who get paid in proportion to your clicks and views, which they compete for with sensationalist reporting and (now infamous) algorithms designed to feed you more of not what you want, but of what you’re drawn to. And of course, thanks to some evolutionary feature-turned-bug, there’s maybe nothing your brain is more drawn to than feelings of worry and outrage. 

Staring into your palm, you go down the rabbit hole, stressing or fuming or both. Without realizing it, you make decision after decision -- scrolling, clicking -- to keep consuming more of the same, despite the fact that you don’t even like the feelings it’s producing. The screen itself isn’t about to help you. It eggs you on like that drinking buddy you’d be embarrassed to have your parents meet. More anger, more concern, more exposure.

This infinite scroll does a couple of things: first, it convinces you subconsciously that the world is full of bad news and bad people. Second, it causes the things you feel while scrolling to start to spill over into your everyday life beyond the screen. “Perception is reality” has the consequence that whatever controls your perception starts to also control your reality. You don’t put down your phone and remind yourself how selective its contents are. You just head out into the world… worried and pissed. That’s your reality now.

The good news is that you’re forced to snap out of this inner doom-n-gloom enough to navigate everyday life. There you are at the grocery store: smiling politely, stepping to the side to let the stranger with the full cart squeeze past, or exchanging small talk with the cashier. Your perception is reality here too, at least for the time being. Thesepeople and this environment are not threatening; everyone’s normal and everything is fine.

The thing to notice is which of these two outlooks is your default. When you’re alone -- not with other people and not looking at a screen -- do you resort to “everything is fine” or “everything is fucked”? Endless scrolling and the junk diet of modern media make it not unlikely that it’s the latter. After all, the whole thing is designed to keep you coming back for more, or maybe even to never stop thinking about the contents of your feed at all. 

Actually, the pull is so strong that you might fail to notice the thing staring you in the face: 99% of your experience in the real world, when you step out into and among humanity, is generally... fine. No sign of the shitstorm of problems that your screen would have you convinced is waiting for you directly outside your front door. Until you realize that, your reality is more tied to the information you’re consuming than to the way the world actually is. Scary stuff.

By the way, there’s a specific and unfortunate bit of gymnastics your brain does to reconcile what you experience (in real life) with what you’re predisposed to believe (partly as a function of your information diet). When the two don’t match, instead of your beliefs getting updated, your brain concludes that all that’s happened is you’ve found the rare exception to the rule. No need to revisit the rule itself.

For example, say you meet someone for the first time, get along great with them and later find out that they’re of some opposing political persuasion. Instead of causing you to wonder whether the other side might be mostly made up of regular, well meaning people (that you might disagree with in some ways), this will probably just cause you to conclude that you happened to meet “one of the good ones”.

I’m sure at the root of this tendency is some sort of evolutionary advantage gained from being cynical or otherwise suspicious of those who your brain has cast as the ‘outgroup’. But in the modern environment -- where human safety has never been more assured, yet awareness of danger has never been higher -- this instinct probably hurts more than it helps. 

The point is that your brain is not to be trusted as a neutral arbiter of reality -- particularly when it’s under the influence of an information diet that’s meant to shape your behaviour but can’t do that without affecting your entire perception of the world.

The first step, as with most cognitive biases, is to be aware of the problem. Next, you might pay attention to how your experiences in the world compare to what things would look like if your physical surroundings contained the same proportion of bad news as you see on your screen. Chances are the two have almost nothing to do with one another.

The fact that “perception is reality” turns out to mean that you should be careful about or at least mindful of what you pay attention to. Don’t leave your perception of the world in someone else’s hands, which is to say -- lost inside the screen that rests in yours.