By Steve Davidson


The Montréal Review, May 2024

The Beatles, once upon a time, were flying from Minnesota to Oregon on one of those airplanes that catches fire. Once they landed safely, an interviewer asked Ringo what he was thinking when the plane’s engine began to smoke. With his wry cheerfulness, he immediately answered, “Beatles, women and children first!”

Most people think that way. Not all the time, of course. But surprisingly often. It’s a type of perception which, while clearly self-interested, is, well . . . very human. This self-interested style of perception, occurring in the midst of competing interests, is based on, quite understandably, that ever-popular preference . . . survival.

The Perception Illusion

People have the sense that they perceive reality with perfect directness, that they see situations, and other people, just how they are. The Truth (often capitalized, to signify its certainty) is right in front of them. So, if they perceive other individuals, or some group, as wrong, or bad, they don’t experience that as their point of view, they experience it as—reality itself. Anyone who doesn’t see it that way must be ignorant, or foolish, or . . . mad.

If mad, possibly dangerous. If dangerous, possibly in need of . . . elimination.

But all that’s largely an illusion. An extensive amount of idiosyncratic, goal-referenced processing is going on between the scene on the outside of the mind, and the picture that gets assembled inside the mind. That means that almost anyone’s perception of people, and situations, is at least slightly distorted, and sometimes very distorted, despite any heartfelt claims to the contrary (e.g., Smith and Medin’s Categories and Concepts).

The Danger of Distorted Perception

The problem is that perception is the basis for beliefs. Beliefs then trigger the powerful dynamics of emotions. Beliefs are primarily rational, and evidence-referenced, but emotions are famously subjective and volatile, and can overwhelm rationality fairly easily (especially with individuals whose rationality is poorly developed). Intense emotional arousal then prompts action.

And actions can kill.

A recent news item carried a story which went something like this: a local politician received a death threat. The politician notified the FBI. The FBI traced the message to a man’s house. The FBI knocked on the man’s door. The man opened the door. The two FBI agents asked him if he had sent a death threat to the politician. “Never!”, said the man. “I’m not that kind of person. I would never do anything like that.” The FBI agents then reminded the man that lying to the FBI would amount to a second serious offense. The man laughed, then admitted, “Yeah, well, I guess I might have gotten a little hot under the collar. I was just upset at what that politician said.”

Probably not too many people would accuse this man of suffering from a gift of compassion so generous as to be unwieldy, nor an excess of impulse-moderating caution, nor a surfeit of searching self-appraisal.

Know Thyself

The famous Oracle at Delphi, in classical Greece, encouraged humanity to “know thyself”. Presumably, that would include an awareness of the complexity of perception, and the way that individuality, group membership, and personal agendas affect people’s understanding of, and approach to, reality.

Basic Notes on the Neuropsychology of Perception

Qualities. Fundamentally, the mind registers qualities in the environment, like white or black, round or square, constant or inconstant. For example, Aristotle, in free, Greek-controlled Athens, perceived the world as relatively constant, an idea portrayed as the reliable golden mean, (Nicomachean Ethics.) Across the Aegean, in subordinate, Persian-controlled Ephesus, the Greek Heraclitus perceived the world as inconstant, an idea portrayed as an ever-changing river (Fragments).

Qualities perceived are the building blocks of beliefs, and the platform for action.

Goals and Values. Life, it turns out, is oriented around goals, ultimately connecting to individual and group surviving and prospering. So, the mind tends to build a radical, survival-referenced value system based on the goals, as in, “What’s good—is what’s good for me, and good for my group; and what’s bad—is what’s bad for me, and bad for my group”. The value system tends to modify perception, to create a hidden evaluative frame around reality.

For example, the Colorado River runs from the Rocky Mountains through the western states, then down a stretch of northern Mexico, ending at the top of the Sea of Cortés. Americans taking the water out of the river to the point where there is almost none left for Mexico is, obviously, a good, and fair thing—from the perspective of Americans. Americans taking the water out of the river to the point where there is almost none left for Mexico is, obviously, a bad, and unfair thing—from the perspective of Mexicans. Americans and Mexicans are viewing the same situation with reference to different constituents, and therefore with reference to different goals—plenty of water for Americans, versus, plenty of water for Mexicans.

Thereby, each is perceiving the same situation through very different evaluative frames, then arriving at very different conclusions. To each side, the conflicting perceptions of the situation seem natural and right—therefore, each view is highly defensible, and opposing views are perfectly attackable. This conflict is perpetuated generation after generation partly because the underlying conceptual processes are unconscious, and largely invisible—therefore mostly out of the reach of conscious analysis. Just as Freud said, and Socrates before him—unexamined mental processes are a danger.

Weighting. The mind tends to weigh the qualities it perceives in the environment—that is, in reference to values, the mind attaches degrees of importance to various elements (e.g., Lemke and Wiersma’s Principles of Psychological Measurement). So, for most Americans, in relation to the Colorado River, the need for Americans to have plenty of Colorado River water carries a great deal of weight—it’s important. And, for most Americans, the need for Mexicans to have plenty of Colorado River water carries little weight—it’s not too important. Mexicans, of course, perceive the situation in exact reverse, because their goals are reversed. Both are largely, though not completely, unaware that the variation is conceptual, and thereby subject to emotions; ultimately as much a function of personal benefit or cost as of objective justice.

The mechanics, and the impact on decision-making, of perceptual weighting can be nicely seen in the case of the American political performer Donald Trump. Consider six qualities widely attributed in the media to Trump: (1) questionable, if not illegal, business practices; (2) multiple divorces, and allegations of extramarital affairs and sexual assault; (3) obsession with, and scathing insults toward, immigrants, minorities, and women; (4) anti-abortion; (5) pro-evangelical; (6) pro-Israel.

Many observers weight items one, two, and three heavily, and weight items four, five, and six lightly. Thus, those observers perceive Trump as largely consisting of negative qualities. Consequently, those observers are puzzled that any voters would support a candidate almost exclusively characterized by what most people would consider negative qualities. It’s obvious to them that he is highly inappropriate as presidential material.

Contrariwise, many other observers frankly acknowledge the negative qualities, but weight them lightly, rendering personal qualities one, two, and three of minimal relevance. Those same observers weight politico-theological items four, five, and six heavily. Those voters perceive Trump as personally flawed, granted, but his politico-theological position is so important to them that they are quite willing to overlook his personal flaws. It’s obvious to them that he is highly appropriate as presidential material.

Categories and Categorization. The mind does a fairly good job of registering qualities of individual objects in the environment, like whiteness or roundness, probably because such low-level perceptions fairly easily can be checked against the evidence, then corrected if in error. But individual objects are a bother to keep track of, so what the mind instinctively turns to is grouping individuals according to common qualities. In other words, in trying to understand the world, the mind instinctively generates high-level categories.

For example, navy blue and royal blue can be categorized as dark blue. Pyramids and cubes can be categorized as sharp-edged forms. Englishmen and Frenchmen can be categorized as men. And men and women can be categorized as humans.

Once a category exists, when individuals come along, their key qualities can be noted, then the individuals can be included in a category which has qualities which seem to match the key qualities of the individual. The great advantage of categorizing individuals is the subsequent power of inference (otherwise known as deduction). It might be that not much is known about a given individual, but a great deal might be known, or at least believed, about the qualities that characterize a category. Once the individual is plausibly placed in a category, based on one or two qualities, it can be inferred that the individual possesses all, or most of, the qualities characteristic of that category.

The problem is that, although qualities are specific and concrete, categories are complex and abstract. Qualities are, to a great extent, visually observed, but categories are mentally constructed. That means various qualities can be added or subtracted from a category in an ad hoc, subjective, biased way without the mind quite noticing, such as with stereotyping.

As an example of what might be called pathological categorization, the British comedy troupe Monty Python has a clever skit portraying Australian philosophy professors introduced to a new member of the faculty, Michael Baldwin, who happens to be English. Michael appears to be shy, modest, polite, and attentive. These supposed Australian philosophers immediately, and categorically, assume that Michael, being from “pommyland”, is likely a “stuck-up” rascal who will be nosing uninvited into everyone’s business, and, while hiding behind an alias, dodging his responsibilities. That is, they have loaded up the category English with a list of negative qualities which they find appealing, some partially true, perhaps; they have included no positive qualities; they have placed Michael Baldwin in the category based on his origin; then enthusiastically attacked him for all these inferred, stereotyped failings.

Funny. Then again, maybe not so much.

Polarities. The mind is inordinately fond of perceiving polarities—like big-little, true-false, and white-black. Such radical conceptualization, of course, easily segues into those much-cherished and profoundly satisfying polarized categories, right-wrong, good-bad, us-them, and friend-enemy. Those lead to the endearing concepts of reward-punishment.

One theory as to the source of this popular radicalization of life is the human body, which is characterized by the horizontal orientation left-right, and the vertical orientation up-down. The diurnal cycle of night-day also may contribute to the polarized perception of existence, as in the popular expression, “The difference is night and day”.

Realistically, polarities can be thought of as the ends of a spectrum, with degrees in between. So, at either end of the spectrum is a concentration of some quality, like white at one pole, and black at the other pole, with shades of gray in the middle. That spectrum then would run from white, to light gray, to medium gray, to dark gray, and finally to black. Degrees are much more accurate, naturally, but electrifying polar extremes are more appealing to the mind.

Simplification. The unconscious mind (sometimes identified as System 1) is, actually, remarkably sophisticated. For example, turning a corner in an automobile in the midst of downtown traffic calls for quick, exotic mathematical calculations involving speed, intersecting curves, and probability. But then what shows up in the conscious mind (sometimes identified as System 2) is something simple, like, “Here’s Fifth Avenue. The light is with us. Time to turn left. There we go.”

It’s hard to know where the mind’s passion for simplification comes from, but one hint comes from decision-making and leadership, and their link to survival. Decision theory tells us that a leader’s attempt to motivate the troops with something reasonable, complex, and partial, like, “The enemy isn’t all bad, I guess, but not so great, either; so let’s see if we can go kill some, and maybe win this uh, what shall we call it—misunderstanding”. Such a conceptualization, and corresponding communication, likely would convince few people to risk their lives. Much more motivating is a conceptualization and communication grossly simplified, like, “Without a single doubt, our enemies are bad, not even people—let’s go kill them, and win this war”.

Consequently, the unconscious mind has a tendency to assess situations in a fairly sophisticated manner, but then to deliver to the conscious, decision-making mind convenient and convincing simplicities, especially black-white polarities, in a kind of internal, or eventually external, propaganda system. The motivating simplicities, then, are generally formulated on behalf of personal benefit. Not necessarily incorrect, but probably not quite accurate or complete, either.

(The mind is ever advised by a secret advocate, communicating from the shadows. “Psst! Be smart. Take what you can get. Keep this to yourself.” This was the part of the mind about which Dr. Jung cautioned the world.)

Neuropsychological Perception and Conflict

So, there we have it. The unconscious mind does a remarkably competent job of registering complex reality as it is, but, quite often, slickly and subtly interprets reality in a goal-oriented, self-serving way. Then, like a good defense attorney speaking to a jury, the unconscious mind delivers to the conscious mind that interpretation, which is aimed at winning—as an evidence-bolstered, goal-oriented, favorably-weighted, categorical, polarized, and simplified . . . fait accompli. Plain-spoken, earnest, factual. (As the prehistorical attorney said on a Saturday Night Live skit, “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I’m just a caveman.”)

In the midst of individual, group, class, organizational, or even international conflict, that subtle neuropsychological perception process seems to roundly justify preferred claims, accusations, and demands. Ultimately, should push come to shove, the distorted perceptions can sanctify . . . aggression . . . and, sometimes . . . unbridled aggression.

The Cavalcade of Conflict

Humans are fascinated by conflict. This phenomenon probably derives from biological competition for territory and resources, and the drive to survive and prosper—relative triumph over the challenges of life.

Sports. Sports competitions are analogues of hunting and warfare. Teams “battle it out” to find out who is the best. Fans then identify with their teams. Fans come to perceive their teams as the best regardless, and to perceive their teams as honest and fair—right and good. It’s an easy step from that to perceiving that any loss must have happened because the other team cheated—in other words, is wrong and bad. Not too far down that path is violence in the stands.

Literature/Entertainment. Almost any instructions on the writing of fiction or plays (like The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing by Writer’s Digest Books, or Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing) begin with the premise that there must be conflict because that is going to be the fulcrum of the drama. For example: the Montagues versus the Capulets in Romeo and Juliet, Caesar versus the Roman Senate in Julius Caesar, the South versus the North in Gone with the Wind, and the lonely, sad citizen victimized by an anonymous system in Kafka’s The Trial.

Journalism/Narrative Nonfiction. Modern journalism has discovered, to its fiscal horror, that the average reader is bored by well-organized, important information. The solution to the readership problem has been to transform news bits into drama, otherwise known as narrative nonfiction. Slightly problematic agents become villains, slightly helpful agents become heroes, and moderately spirited differences of opinion become wars. It’s a wonder we can make sense of the world at all.

Theological Disputes. There are about two billion Judeo-Christians in the world. And there about two billion Moslems in the world. (Are promoters of professional wrestling and cage fighting missing a good bet here?) Judeo-Christians perceive the Pentateuch as an inviolable description of how the world works, how the world should be run, and who gets what. Moslems perceive the Qurʾān as an inviolable description of how the world works, how the world should be run, and who gets what. But those visions conflict. Thus do we find ourselves in a world-wide religious competition for dominance, derived from shrewdly-weighted perceptions of categorical superiority, and consequent entitlement.

In Northern Ireland the power struggle is between those who perceive Catholicism to be the correct form of Christianity, and those who perceive Protestantism to be the correct form of Christianity. Any individual coming along is instantly categorized as one, or the other, and vilified by members of the opposing category, or embraced by members of the matching category. It can be hard to walk down the streets safely to get a loaf of bread! As the Simple Minds song says, “War is raging, through the Emerald Isle/All the girls are crying . . ./The streets are empty, the streets are cold/Won’t you come on home?”

One wishes these contending parties could, in some gracious sermon on Stormont, share a pint, share some breaded fish, and work out a miracle of peace.

Capitalism versus Communism. Capitalists perceive The Wealth of Nations as the pillar of civilization. As they see it, if a minority of high-IQ investors and managers can’t become insanely rich, the whole world will go to hell in a handbasket. Communists perceive The Communist Manifesto as the pillar of a just world. The fact that communist regimes routinely plummet into dictatorships managed by a wealthy minority, backed up by secret police, curbs their enthusiasm not a jot. The reality that Nordic nations live peacefully and happily, while spreading the wealth fairly, doesn’t remotely impress either capitalists or communists, since Scandinavian sanity makes both capitalists and communists look questionable at best.

Does Violent Conflict Actually Work?


But it’s heartbreaking, depending on your point of view, how often nations sally forth beyond their borders, flags flying and trumpets sounding, aggressively and floridly gaining ground, initially, only to see their splendid conquests and expanded borders collapse right back to where they started. Or worse.

The ancient Greeks started out on a small peninsula and a few islands, and, with confident bravura eventually conquered the Middle East, slashing all the way to the Indus River. Greece, today, is once again a small peninsula and a few islands.

Rome started out as a small city-state by the Tiber River. Through excellent education, cutting-edge engineering, first-rank military training, and a ferociously well-organized administration, the empire of Rome eventually stretched from Scotland to Africa, from Spain to Persia. Rome, today, is once again a city, struggling to keep its streets clean and safe, and its government functioning—an also-ran civitas on the edge of the modern world, though boasting, of course, a glorious history.

“And so it goes”, as the novelist Vonnegut said— Huns, Vikings, Mongolians, Turks, Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish, Mayans, Incas, French, British, Austro-Hungarians, and, most recently, Germans, Japanese, and Soviets. Explosive growth, then cheerful dominance, then final, rueful shrinkage. China, at the moment, appears to be working its way up this tragic Arc of Destiny—vanquishing all and sundry, simultaneously accumulating the predictable international resentments and the slow massing of barbarians at the gates, while faintly registering the distant glimmer of eventual retrenchment.

The Higher Goal

These examples of conflicts of perception, and the corresponding conflicts of behavior, and communication, can be multiplied easily a thousand times. Underneath it, they are essentially ego-based conflicts over territory and resources linked to survival and prosperity.

The daily news is replete with histrionic screeds vilifying the “other side”, righteous rants inflamed by perceptual distortions—citing qualities out of context, mislabeling and misattributing goals and values, weighting heavily matters favorable to the communicator and weighting lightly matters unfavorable to the communicator, inaccurately categorizing and then unfairly characterizing opposed individuals, insisting on polar differences between groups where there is actually much overlap, and over-simplifying situations where several issues need to be unraveled and addressed.

Rare it is to see conflicting parties, instead of striving for dominance, striving for common ground, striving for higher goals which will benefit everyone! A better world is really not that hard to envision, and there are plenty of established components of healthy cooperation to go around. Here are two sets—philosophy and quality of life.

Philosophy. India is a splendid fount of profound wisdom. The world, the Vedas suggest, has its rules, ultimately mystical, but humanly experienced as laws of physics and biology. And people violate those rules to their sorrow. Rules of wise living can be summarized as dharma. An individual lays down a track of behaviors, positive or negative, or in between, sensibly cooperating with, or foolishly defying dharma. Then . . . life rewards or punishes . . . accordingly. That’s karma. “Kill or be killed” said the novelist Jack London, in his literary theaters of fang and claw, like The Sea Wolf. But better should he have said, “Ahimsa”—Sanskrit for non-violence. Jack died at forty.

As the Nobel Prize-winning Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote, “Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers, but to be fearless in facing them”.

India, China, and Japan are famous for their obsession with serenity, precise focus, and harmony. Buddha and Confucius, both contemporaries, interestingly, are two of the main literary sources for this philosophy of calm, responsible cooperation, as in the Dhammapada and the Analects. These two works are perhaps the foundation of what is generally thought of as Asia, that is—the Celebrated Wisdom of the East.

China, of course, is currently a brilliantly humming production machine, bidding fair to take over the world in the foreseeable future, at least temporarily. And Japan is nearly a universal standard of excellence in design and manufacturing. But the Dhammapada and the Analects don’t seem to get much traction in the West. Not enough drama, perhaps. Maybe that’s why Asians watch Western movies, while Asian goods flood Western markets.

Plato, and his literary sidekick, Socrates, are perceived by many observers as the standard-bearers of Western philosophy. In works like The Republic, Timaeus, and Critias, Plato makes it abundantly clear that an intelligently-led, rationally-organized, well-run community, where everyone works together, and everyone is provided for, is an obvious benefit to humanity. Such a civic paragon should remain, like Atlantis, a shining ideal, to all people, for all time.

Not sure what that beneficent philosophical vision might look like?

Quality of Life. Many people wonder, “What is a good life, and where can it be found?” Well, there are quite a few folks around who have provided well-reasoned, statistically-based answers to those questions, like Mercer’s Quality of Living Reports. That’s primarily because businesses want to know the best places to set up shop, and they want to be able to reassure top employees they are locating there that it’s a nice place to live.

So, what does “nice place to live” mean?

Safe. You can go out at night, and not have to worry about being assaulted, or having your pocket picked. You can have a cup of tea in your home and not stress over a burglary. Kids can walk to school and play in parks, and no one worries. Think Copenhagen, Helsinki, Tokyo, or Singapore.

Beautiful. Magnificent architecture, statues, fountains, flowers, gardens, trees, broad streets and generous sidewalks. Evocative places to promenade, then comfortable places to sit. Everything clean, well-maintained, and attractive. Think Zurich, Vienna, or Paris.

Probably deserving of a nod is jewel-like, scrupulously-neat San Sebastian/Donostia. (Okay, also because they have great food. And Wonder Woman fans may be intrigued to know that it’s a matriarchy. If you want Amazons, there you are. There’s even a fine Amazonas bar.)

Public Transportation. You don’t realize how convenient it is to have access to modern, handsome, cheap, efficient public transportation until you’ve had the pleasure of experiencing it. Hop onto the trolley, jump on the bus, step into the metro, slide onto the train, then sip your coffee and read your paperback, and in fifteen minutes you’re there. And if you need a taxi, they are everywhere—clean, comfortable, and quick, and, the drivers know just where they are going, and how to get there, for a reasonable fee. Think Helsinki, San Sebastian, Hong Kong, or Tokyo.

Culture. Lots of good restaurants, interesting and important theater, exciting music performances, excellent bookstores for browsing. Maybe some concerts in the park, and a wandering minstrel or two. Kiosks selling quality newspapers, art and literature magazines, interesting paperbacks, unique foods, maybe beautiful scarves and jazzy, artistic T-shirts. Think Paris, London, Montreal, or New York.

Top-Flight Education. Educational theories come and go, and glamourous gurus blossom and fade, but good education, like the Earth, abideth forever. Math, geometry, and computation. Science, and its practical sister, technology. Grammar, logic, and rhetoric. History and languages. Great literature, art, and philosophy. Fundamental benchmarks of teaching and research are the Shanghai ratings, and the PESI educational standards. Think Cambridge, Oxford, Montreal, Stanford, Singapore, Kyoto, or Hong Kong.

Infrastructure/Service. The phones work. There are places everywhere to plug in your computer. Bureaucracies understand that you are busy, and want necessary procedures completed quickly and accurately. When you make an appointment with someone, they show up on time. Contracts are accurate, then fulfilled according to the schedule, and charged according to the agreement. Think Los Angeles, New York, Singapore, Hong Kong, or Tokyo.

(Frances Mayes, a professor, from San Francisco, wrote an inspiring, much-loved book, Under the Tuscan Sun. It reports on her experiences of buying an old villa in Tuscany, and managing to renovate it, but only after many time-consuming, frustrating encounters with the local bureaucracies and workmen. Mayes clarifies that if crisp infrastructure and crackerjack service are critical to your mental health, you must realize that some places will go a long way towards developing that virtue you’ve been wishing for . . . patience.)

Happiness and Long Life. A sitcom, or a memoir by Kafka, titled “A Short Unhappy Life” might be interesting, but probably wouldn’t be most people’s idea of desirable. Many places in the world are colorful and exciting, but not conducive to either living a long time, or doing so happily. However, some places, like Blue Zones, are conducive to both—facilitating close friendships, hard but not excessive work, sensible finances, realistic goals, healthy food, and plenty of fresh air and exercise in nature. Think Helsinki, Copenhagen, Zurich, Ikaria, and Bora-Bora.

(Okay, I threw that last one in myself, aside from any international ratings. But the Polynesians don’t get the credit they deserve. Maybe there aren’t enough of them to reach statistical significance.)


Accurate perception, and thereby reasonable behavior, and honest communication, aren’t that difficult to do. (Of course, they’re not that easy, either.)

There’s a classic concept in clinical psychology, one not much bandied about nowadays in the media, which is ever-enamored of the shocking, the magical, and the mysterious. That concept is . . . reality-contact.
Poor perception means poor reality-contact. That is, what is experienced has a loose relationship to the actual environment. The experience may be powerful, but is more than a little illusory.

Reality-contact is usually pretty good with tangible objects, because beliefs can be directly tested. People can test their theories of how a new car works, for example, by getting in and trying to drive. The professions of medicine and law are constantly running tests to make sure that conclusions are derived from hard evidence.

The perceptual problem emerges when dealing with very abstract, high-level concepts, like good and bad, or right and wrong, which are remote from anything tangible. Highly abstract concepts do contain some verifiable elements, but they typically are burdened with a raft of subordinate concepts, supplied by subjective preferences, which carry a lot of emotional power, but are marginally supported by the evidence.

Thus, over and over again, history and the media present portraits of people who develop passionate beliefs based on the perception of scant, or distorted evidence, then become embroiled in violent altercations with people of conflicting views. Belligerent sports fans are a prime example. But far too many other examples can be easily drawn from the annals of politics and international relations.

Accurate Perception Checklist

It may be useful to run through a checklist of items which you can use to evaluate information you are offered, and to evaluate your own thoughts, to make sure you are not falling into the trap of perception that is distorted and negative—first splashy and self-advancing, then, unfortunately, self-defeating.

            Qualities: Ask—can perceptions be traced to concrete, specific characteristics of the environment? Is there a “there there”? If a light appears at the end of the tunnel, is it an oncoming train? What, finally, do you see, and what do you really have? Courts adjudicating cases always demand evidence for claims. Businesspeople conducting deals always demand evidence for claims. So should you.

            Goals and Values: As the saying goes—if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll have a hard time getting there. As also might be said—if you don’t know what you believe in, or what you care about, you’ll find it almost impossible to make sound decisions. Therefore, living intelligently involves setting goals and establishing values.

Just remember that those goals and values tend to bias your perceptions of other people, organizations, ideologies, and life. A bit of skepticism about your own opinions, suspicious about how they, coincidentally, tend to lean your way, can be healthy. As they say in law offices, “First we discover the truth, then we build the argument”.

            Weighting: Giving something a lot of points because you see it as so wonderful, or deducting a lot of points because you see it as so awful, comes naturally. But it’s useful, from the point of view of accuracy, to be aware that a subtle weighting and ranking process is going on sub rosa.

Check your sizing up of people or situations against the facts. Is your estimate of their worth, or lack of it, justified by the data?

            Categories and Categorization: Grouping people, ideologies, and institutions with reference to one or more common qualities is almost automatic, and pervasive among humanity. There’s always some basis for generating an opportunistic Right/Us Group and a threatening Wrong/Them Group.

It’s tedious, granted, to analyze handy, and often galvanizing, categorical terms, like communist, socialist, or capitalist, and ask, “To what specific qualities do these categorical terms actually refer?” However . . . only then can the probable facts be disentangled from all those emotional responses linked to the perception of opportunity or threat, group belonging or group rejection.

It’s equally tedious, but equally useful, to be conscious of how individuals are categorized, that is, placed in a category. For example, if someone says, “I think a nation’s wealth should be more or less equally shared among all citizens”, is that belief sufficient to qualify them for the category communist? If someone says, “I want to be rich”, is that desire sufficient to qualify them for the category capitalist?

The test is to list the key qualities in a category, then list the key qualities in the individual, and see if there is an adequate match. More demanding, but more sane.

            Polarities: Polarities are colorful and dramatic. Perhaps these two polarities are the most famous lines in literature: Shakespeare’s “To be, or not to be”, and Dickens’ “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. Gripping.

Every public commentator, it sometimes seems, dramatically polarizes the world: East-West, North-South, Communist-Capitalist, Liberal-Conservative, Rich-Poor, and on and on. Such bifurcations are neuropsychologically and emotionally gratifying, rallying cries for vested groups, but are statistical gibberish, and thus greatly contribute to both personal confusion and political conflict.

Your best bet for side-stepping the polarization seesaw is, first, recognize that a distribution consisting only of polar ends, with no middle, is unlikely to be accurate; and second, look at the data, and try to figure out how big, and where, the middle is, since that’s where most of the cases reside. For example, real estate pegs housing prices in the middle—the median. And most citizens don’t identify radically with one party or the other, but rather focus on civic goals likely to be of general benefit—Aristotle’s golden mean.

            Simplification: Even a casual excursion into the history of Greece, the Bible, or the Vedas embarrassingly exposes the extent to which modern memories and comprehension have disappeared down a rabbit hole. Homer, for example, memorized the whole of The Iliad and The Odyssey, and those babies are llllooooonnnnnggg, with lots of c-o-m-p-l-e-x p-l-o-t-t-i-n-g.

Modern media, literature, movies, television, and graphic novels, of course, and even education, want to attract as large an audience as possible, to maximize income, and that translates into making information as digestible as possible. However, one is reminded of Aesop’s thought about, “Too much of a good thing”.

You can sidestep the oversimplification trap by, first, remembering that it is occurring, likely—nothing is as simple as that; and, second, calling on your recollection of relevant data to speculate about what has been left out—that is, what is this thing really like, probably?

Part of the art of persuasion, in the midst of a conflict, is to sound completely objective, perfectly reasonable, and easily comprehensible. Part of the art of savvy consumption of information is to assume that every formal communication is to some degree subjectively motivated, purposefully distorted, and much more complicated than it sounds. Look through the smoke and mirrors to the truth. Ask, as the in old commercial, “Where’s the beef?

Constructive Harmony

The issue of perception and conflict is threefold. First, recognize that perception itself is deceptive. It seems to deliver information about the environment in a direct, unbiased way. That’s probably so that everyone can sincerely say, in a conflict over resources, “I’m just telling it like it is”. But perception is very complex, and shrewdly favors the speaker. After all, survival is a priority. (Isn’t it?)

Second, be candid, at least with yourself, that the way you “see” things is probably a little like betting with loaded dice—ones you have modified yourself. Not so terrible. Very human. But if you can get comfortable with your own unconscious deception, and learn how to develop more honest and accurate perceptions, and thus be a bit more forthcoming, and if you can get comfortable with other people’s unconscious deceptions . . . you may find it easier to back off the presumptions and the emotions, and find a common ground.

Third, as you accept yourself, and as you accept others, in a realistic way, and communicate more frankly, everyone can begin to do what everyone wants to do anyhow—construct a world with greater harmony and sharing, and a higher quality of life for all people.

The Good Samaritan

Of course, not all misperception is negative. For example, it’s healthy to have a positive view of yourself, even if it’s a little exaggerated. Similarly, when you meet people, it’s a good idea to put your best foot forward, even if that’s a little misleading.

And here’s a truly heartwarming media story about misperception gone right. In New York, a little girl on a big playground got separated from her mother, and couldn’t find her. A woman, dressed all in blue, wearing a police badge, walked by. The little girl perceived the woman in blue to be a police officer, and asked for help in finding her mother. In actuality, the woman was an actor, in costume, performing, at that moment, in an ongoing police drama. But the woman stopped the production, took the little girl’s hand, and helped her find her mother.


Blessed are the Peacemakers.
- Matthew 5:9

When the broken-hearted people living in the world agree/
There will be an answer, let it be.
- Paul McCartney

Sea of Galilee Sunset Dreams with Palms by M Bleichner


Dr. Steve Davidson is a clinical psychologist in Laguna Beach, California, with many years of experience. He has developed a new theory of personality and psychotherapy called human operations. It conceives of people as goal-oriented systems aimed at surviving and thriving, as described in his book An Introduction to Human Operations Psychotherapy.




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