Nov 18 2014

Perception vs Facts

I was recently in a conversation with someone about the alleged threat that Muslims present to Western societies. I made the point that not all Muslims are radicals, and it’s not valid to condemn the entire group based upon the actions of their most radical members. They countered that “90%” of Muslims were radicals.

Obviously, they made this figure up on the spot for rhetorical effect. But this was their perception, shaped, very likely, by the type of news they generally consume.

In addition to the biasing effect that media can have on our perceptions of reality, there is a day-to-day subtle confirmation bias that colors our perceptions. It is very true that “believing is seeing” – we tend to notice, remember, and accept observations that seem to confirm (or can be interpreted to confirm) our internal model of reality. We tend to ignore or (more often) dismiss observations that seem to contradict our internal narrative. They are reinterpreted, or treated as “exceptions” (assuming the rule to which this new evidence would be an exception).

The good news is that today we have rapid access to objective factual information like never before. I love whipping out my smartphone and fact-checking in the middle of a conversation. This access to information should also have a humbling effect, and should motivate people to question the “facts” that they have rattling around in their brains. Don’t trust anything unless you have a recent and reliable reference.

Another favorite tactic of mine is, when someone (gullibly) forwards to me a spam e-mail spouting the latest political propaganda, I search for a definitive debunking of the factual claims made in the e-mail, and then respond with the link in addition to a note of how long it took me to find it (usually less than a minute). Strangely these people tend to stop including me when they forward such e-mails.

A recent survey illustrates the gap  in various countries between common perceptions and reality. Out of the 14 countries surveyed, the US ranked second to last, above only Italy. 

Here are the numbers for the US:

Percent of population 65+: Perception: 35.9%, Reality: 14%

Percent of population who are Christian: Perception: 55.7%, Reality: 78%

Percent of population who are Muslim: Perception: 15%, Reality: 1%

Percent of working age population who are unemployed: Perception: 32.1%, Reality 6%

Is the murder rate rising or falling? Perception: 51% rising, 30% falling, Reality: it is falling.

Teenage pregnancy rate: Perception: 23.9%, Reality: 3.1%

Percent of population that are immigrants: Perception: 32.3%, Reality: 13%

Percent of population who voted in last election: Perception: 57.1%, Reality: 58%

Life expectancy for infant born in 2014: Perception: 78.1 years, Reality: 80 years

The last two are fairly accurate, otherwise those surveyed tended to think that the population is much more foreign and threatening than it actually is. They tend to think that social problems are much greater than they are. This is probably mainly a media-biasing effect. I would love to see a breakdown of these numbers based upon the main news outlets watched by those surveyed.


I have been writing a great deal recently about the distorting effect that our internal narratives, beliefs, biases and ideologies can have on our perceptions and recollections of reality.

From my perspective, I can’t imagine why anyone would want to be laboring under misinformation. It is worth the effort to be suspicious of any apparent facts (especially when they seem to support what you want to believe) and to seek out information that is as objective and reliable as possible.

But it seems that the pathway of least resistance is to lazily accept facts that conform to our beliefs. It’s easy and comforting. You just have to not care about being wrong. You do run the risk, however, of someone whipping out their smartphone and showing that you’re wrong.

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