Something interesting I’ve noticed is that there’s often a huge discrepancy between what I perceive and what other people perceive even if we’re both making observations on the same external reality.
The cliche example of this is the old glass half-full or half-empty debate. If you perceive the glass to be half-full you’re supposedly an optimist who sees the best in things, and if you see the glass as being half-empty you’re labeled a “Debbie-downer.”
While the specifics of that example are debatable it provides a general outlook on what we’re going to explore today; the idea of mental projections and perspectives causing two people to have completely different experiences despite the fact they’re coexisting in the same external reality.
Let’s bring things back down to Earth a little bit with a concrete example. Imagine you go out with your friends and you’re in a great mood. You’re having fun, you’re cracking jokes and you’re making sure everyone else is having a great time as well. How are your friends likely to treat you when you’re behaving towards them in that positive manner?
Most likely, they’re going to treat you in a similar fashion. We’ve talked about it before. The world is your mirror. Because people are naturally reciprocative they’re generally going to show similar behaviors to those you’ve shown towards them. If you’re nice to me I’ll be nice to you. Scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.
This is the first key to establishing a positive relationship with anyone you meet. Become the type of person that puts predominantly positive energy into the world. If you’re the guy that everyone can have fun and feel good about themselves around you’re going to be generally well-treated by others because they perceive you as being a valuable commodity in their life.
However, if we’re going to be honest there’s some people that it’s very difficult to have a positive relationship with. When someone is constantly depressed, or angry, or mean to you it’s difficult to be nice back. When you find yourself in this situation you have one of two choices.
You can either remove them from your life (or at least minimize contact with him/her to the extent possible) or you can acknowledge the possibility that the person’s behavior towards you is at least partially your fault. That brings us to our second concept.
(Note: I did say acknowledge the possibility that the person’s behavior toward you is at least partially your fault. That doesn’t necessarily mean it is. You don’t need to be paranoid about this. Often when someone is mean to you it’s in part your fault, but sometimes the hostile behavior is a result of issues entirely on their side. You can usually tell the difference by how personally you take their behavior. The more personally you take things the more likely you’re at least partially at fault.)
The Projection Effect
Our first concept could be summarized as the external reality you experience being a reflection of your inner state of being. If you are a generally positive person you could expect to elicit generally positive responses from other people.
I like to call our second concept the projection effect and it dives a bit deeper into this idea. The projection effect essentially states that people tend to behave in accordance to the way you expect them to behave.
If you label someone as an asshole you’re likely to perceive asshole-like behaviors from them regardless of whether they were an asshole in the first place. This happens for two reasons.
The first is due to your own cognitive-biases. Because there’s so much going on around us we can only perceive a small amount of the outside world and our sensory experiences at a time. Can you imagine how crazy you’d go if you had to simultaneously perceive your fingernails growing, each blink of your eyes, your heart beating, your breathing, and the need to constantly be swallowing your spit?
For that reason we’ve developed a mechanism through which to filter reality called the Reticular Activation System (commonly abbreviated RAS). This process of filtering reality functions by bringing to your conscious attention only what you're likely to perceive as having value.
If you’re being chased by a lion you’re going to be racking your brain for ways to escape rather than worrying about the fragrances being given off by the flowers. If you’re listening to a boring presentation at work and a stunning model in a bikini walks into the room you’re probably going to find it difficult to direct your attention towards your coworker’s powerpoint.
However, while this subconscious process of filterization is typically beneficial it can cause you to misattribute characteristics to the people in your life. This is a major cause of celebrity worship.
People put a public figure on a pedestal, and once this has occurred it becomes almost impossible to change their opinion of this person because they can no longer reliably perceive and identify the celebrity’s flaws and negative attributes. When you believe a person is a god, or somehow above you; you tend to overlook the mistakes they’ve made and the fact that they’re not a perfect person.
In the same way, however, you can also misattribute negative characteristics to someone. You can ask yourself why your coworker is always such an asshole to you when he seems to be nice to everyone else.
However, by doing so you’re doing two things. First you’re establishing a filter of reality that’s biased to produce a negative experience for you. This is perhaps the least intelligent thing you could ever do. By placing someone into this box, you’re likely to perceive them behaving in accordance with that which you’ve projected onto them because your RAS will filter out most, if not all the moments you could have perceived them not being an asshole. This may be the most prevalent reason you could see someone as a jerk when everyone else seems to love them.
Second is perhaps the most profound insight you’ll ever have in regards to your interactions with other human beings. Because the world is your mirror, when you create a mental construct of someone being mean, or otherwise unlikable you are actually creating that reality for yourself.
By thinking of someone as being mean you’ve both skewed your RAS as well as changed the way in which you’ll act towards them even if only subconsciously. You may not consciously behave in a hostile manner towards him or her, but your sub-communications will change even if only subtly.
You may be more demanding of them, take a more aggressive tone towards them, or otherwise refuse to express your personality towards them in the most positive manner you’re capable of.
Regardless of your specific behavioral traits that have changed the end result it that you’ll be expressing a less than optimal side of yourself and because of this you’ll experience an inoptimal side of their personality, and an even more negatively skewed perception of who that person really is.
Although we’d like to think otherwise, the majority of douchebags and disagreeable people in our lives are only the way they are because we’ve labeled and made them that way. The truth is that the people you deem to be your worst enemies are often your own creation.