“Tell me one last thing," said Harry. "Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?” "Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry," Dumbledore replied, "but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?"
It is a perspective I teach to students, advertising agency people, and to people I counsel, for it is a principle well worth carrying into careers and industries and relationships. It is an important precept in communications, in the governance of people and nations, in business and stocks, and when dealing with friends and relatives. Perception is reality, and though perception is seldom reality, how the outside world perceives us and what we do have dramatic repercussions on any relationship, be that with the customer, voter or beloved.
The line is attributed to Lee Atwater. Spin master and political rock star, Atwater masterminded George H.W. Bush's presidential victory over Michael Dukakis. He was adviser to Ronald Reagan, and chairman of the Republican National Committee.
In the culminating film of the Harry Potter franchise, there is a King's Cross station scene where Professor Dumbledore is asked the question in the headline of this article.
"Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry," Dumbledore replied, "but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?"
Perhaps there is nothing that underscores the point better than to state that the Perception is Reality principle is biblical. When asked whether eating food sacrificed to idols is a sin, Paul answered that it is, by itself, not a sin.
“We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one... but not everyone knows this. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled... Be careful (then) that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak... So this weak brother... is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.” 1 Corinthians 8:4
Paul is saying that management of the perception is, in fact, more important when one recognizes the potential harm a wrong perception could cause:
"Paul is anxious that the Christian in this example will be sucked back into the vortex of idolatry and face spiritual ruination. He concludes... what he would do to avert such a catastrophe. He would abstain from eating meat altogether (1 Corinthians 8:4).” - David E. Garland, The Dispute Over Food Sacrificed to Idols, Baylor University
"Perception has life"
"You mean I have to be concerned about what people think even if I have done nothing wrong!?", so reacted an executive of an advertising agency. He was aghast at the unimaginable burden of having to worry about wrong perceptions. But for one to pay no regard to an accusation because it is untrue is foolhardy and politically naïve.
Perception has life: it has form and weight and mass and influence, on career and performance and personal reputation.
We live in a world where reality does not necessarily rule. When an accusation has traction, accept the perception, however flawed or inaccurate, as the reality you have to deal with.
For instance, when you see hunger and poverty statistics rising and falling by double digits, know that, unless there was a major calamity or runaway inflation on the ground, you are really not looking at figures for hunger and poverty rising and falling by double digits.
The key qualifier is that they are “self-rated”. Hunger, poverty, satisfaction with government, optimism are measures that allow us a glimpse into their hearts at the point of contact with the researcher.
If he has hope that conditions might change, he will be less hungry, and less often hungry. If his perception is that he is poorer or hungrier these days, look for what darkens his skies.
The thermometer’s “Feels Like” temperature is a good analogy of the dictum "Perception is Reality". What is real is of no consequence; the actual temperature has no value at all. It is only what is perceived, what has you muttering under your breath, and complaining about the air conditioning that is real, and that is all that matters.
"But how could I have stolen money? How can I be blamed for this? I wasn't even in government yet!”
Facts seldom matter, a fact of life in the public relations field.
Cries of innocence and alibis, however valid, cannot outweigh intrinsic bias. While one may be blessed by innocence, an accusation must be accorded almost the same concern as if there were guilt.
When Obama was leading in the polls in his first campaign for the presidency, they threw everything at him: that he was not Christian, that he was not a natural-born citizen and therefore ineligible to run for the position. Campaigners were notable and many. Obama tarried in addressing the issue; he considered it ridiculous to have to defend himself. "Many people latched onto the rumors as gospel truth. Even when the rumors were overturned by facts, people clung to the mistruths". -Politico
"The principle of Caesar's wife is absolutely vital for any government seeking to uphold public rectitude... if questions of conduct lead to the case being referred to the Commissioner for Parliamentary Standards, in no circumstances may the minister remain in office. That may seem hard if the accusations come to nothing, but governments must accept that the appearance of corruption can be as damaging as the reality, and that the insistence on quite irrelevant legal principles is apt only to increase cynicism and disenchantment among the people it is meant to reassure.” The London Independent, Philip Hensher
The average Filipino public servant will not adhere to the same severe code, but he can choose to respect perceptions better.
A recent poll was made, albeit online, on how government was managing the pandemic. The survey results were, I suspect, appalling to the cabinet. The consensus among the respondents: government is doing badly.
Again, whether true or not, in my business, perception is reality.
Does the Filipino fear his government? Is there free speech? "59% of Filipino adults agree and 18% disagree with the statement, I can say anything I want, openly and without fear, even if it is against the administration."
Government, if it wants to correct the impression, should work from there. True or not, government should not reject.
“Joblessness at 22.0%, estimated at 9.8 million adults". - SWS. An initial reaction to an unfavorable survey is usually a protest from the department concerned. Unfortunately protesting in media does not change survey results or alter perceptions made. Yes, they may argue with industry statistics that more jobs were created, and, yes, they can say this is just a survey, but they would do well to accept the results as an indicator that there is something to fix.
When a false perception is shaped, you can hope that it is either too small or too incredible to bother with. But if it gains traction, expect the lie to grow with every telling, expect it to become a perception, expect it to be sturdy, robust and ineradicable, held by more people, and then expect the perception to become reality.
As I have advised several in government: do not argue with research. Research is about the sentiments of the public. Take it — it is a problem to solve.
I was watching the undercover video where a Cambridge Analytica executive was recorded as saying, "these are things that don’t necessarily need to be true, as long as they are believed."
"These are things that don’t necessarily need to be true, as long as they are believed."01:30 mark.
I thought it sounded familiar. With cursory googling, copies of a Yahoo group message bearing Loida Nicolas-Lewis's name appeared. “Doesn’t have to be true”, she is alleged to have written, “just needs to LOOK like that (Emphasis in the original). In the absence of first-hand experience, perception becomes reality. Hindi naman sila taga-Pilipinas, so kung ano 'yung nasa CNN, 'yun ang totoo."
I do not know if the Yahoo group message is authentic, but if it is, it appears Nicolas understands the principle well. Politics aside, I doff my hat.
“All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche
Be it for commerce, for politics, or for the relationships in your life, perception management is important. It is always best if the interpretation that prevails, the one that becomes the truth known to the world is the one you prefer, the one you allowed, and, of course, the one closer to the truth.
About the Author
Vincent is chairman of Estima, an ad agency dedicated to helping local industrialists, causes and candidates. He is co-founder and counselor for advertising, public relations, and crisis management of Caucus, Inc., a multi-discipline consultancy firm. He can be reached through email@example.com.
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