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28 Apr 2011

People Believe Their Perceptions Over Facts

We often hear, “People will believe what they want to believe,” the Henry Louis Mencken quote. We also find that people will tend to hold onto their perceptions once knowing the facts. A Special Report about Democracy in California by The Economist in its April 23, 2011 edition contained the article, “What Do You Know?” It seemed to confirm Mencken’s view.

The article mentioned, Kimberly Nalder, a professor at California State University, Sacramento. She studied the degree to which citizens were misinformed about Proposition 13. Often we assume less educated or younger people are the ones misinformed. However, Ms. Nalder found, older, more educated citizens who had lived in California the longest were.

The problem is how do we work with these people? Most of the time, we tend to leave them alone. However, if you need to change someone’s perspective, there are five approaches to remember:

  1. Do not argue facts; any kind of rationale is inferior to the power behind the emotions holding a person’s perspective in place
  2. Do not believe more education will solve the problem; it can help but not alone
  3. Most importantly, focus on strengthening your relationship with the person
  4. Learn to understand the emotions behind a person’s perspective no matter how wrong you think it is
  5. Accept that you will need to alter the person’s perception over time

As we saw in the post, People Follow Leaders Not Facts, people will tend to believe a credible leader over a fact even if the leader is incorrect. As we also saw in Change Management – Tactic #2, relationships are the primer for the paint of change. Thus, when it comes to changing perceptions, it’s not about facts, logic, education or statistics; it’s about leveraging relationships.

9 Responses

  1. Thanks for the article. I was at a training recently where the presenter shared fascinating research showing people will also believe something they hear repeatedly, even if it is counter to both the facts and their perceptions. I’ll try to hunt that down. The presenter explained it in the context of brain science. It was a little disheartening, but explained a lot. Thank you all of your very interesting posts.

    1. Thank you, Janice, for the compliments. Yes, I’ve heard about that but would really like more information on the research. I heard it more within the context of political campaigns and the propagating of certain myths about politicians: you repeat something often enough and people will begin to believe it.

  2. The current situation with Russia and Ukraine should offer fertile ground for further research – unfortunately. Russians, Americans and Europeans are all being ‘brainwashed’ into believing that their own society is the only true democracy, and that Ukraine needs saving. A tragic example of perception and repetition outweighing objective reality.

    1. Mike Lehr

      Thank you for visiting, Marilyn. I wonder though how much this brainwashing is really just a rationalization for serving the particular interests of those nations and regions you mention? In other words, how much is really about what type of government Ukraine will have and how much is really about to what countries Ukraine will align itself?

      1. Right – I have no doubt that a good dose of cynicism (also known as geopolitics) is present on the part of the brainwashers; though even there I’m prepared to give some the benefit of the doubt and think that they (at least a few) may truly believe their own propaganda.

        Rather, I was thinking from the point of view of the rest of us – the potentially brainwashed.

        This is nothing new. I wonder whether ANY war in history would have been possible without brainwashing? – i.e. cynical or geopolitical use of the innate tendencies and mechanisms you describe. The challenge, and possibly the opportunity, lies with the ‘information society’. In our empowerment work, we find it’s possible to help many people to a different position: one where they critically assess the information fed to them, and actively search for other perspectives. In the best case, lessons in ‘critical thinking’ in schools can do the trick, at least for some pupils.

        This is a whole new field opening up for research and experimentation. I have no doubt you’ll be at the forefront!

        1. Mike Lehr

          Thank you, Marilyn. I do believe though that while facts might remain objective, it’s their interpretation that remains subjective. I’m also been more aware of self-censorship, only accessing the information we wish to hear. So, while the information society has made more information available to us, it has also given us more freedom to read what we choose. ~Mike

          1. Ah yes, now we’re into a big topic. Not only subjectivity of interpretation but also selectivity. An American philosopher (Philip something?) wrote that the networked society is dangerous because it enables us to associate only with people who agree with us; whereas in a village society we simply have to get on with everyone.

          2. Mike Lehr

            Thank you, Marilyn, I’ve never heard that distinction put that way. So, true, I don’t need to deal with anyone I don’t like on the internet. However, in my everyday life, I must learn to co-exist. That in itself is a learning and growing experience.

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