Perception can be understood as the immediate, dynamic and meaningful organisation of sensory information corresponding to a given configuration of stimuli delineated in space and time (Anolli, 2006, translated).

But how reliable are our perceptions? And how reliable are they we’re faced with an emergency?

Perception is a process by which we attribute meaning to an external input, the end product of which is the result of selecting, analysing, integrating, and coordinating information.

We now have a good understanding of how our perceptions are not an exact reproduction of what is found in reality, but rather an interpretation of it. Just think about how in some situations we do not perceive the presence of some information at all, whilst in others the information that we perceive is not actually present... a famous example of this is represented in the image below.

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Kanizsa's Triangle

But what is it that makes our perceptions so often unreliable?

Perceptions act as a mediator between the subject and the external reality. Every time we perceive something, 2 types of process are activated instantaneously and without any conscious effort. These are the Bottom-up process, in which perception is based on information that comes from outside (direct perception), and the Top-down process, in which perception is based according to our beliefs and expectations of the external reality, with which we interact from time to time (indirect perception).

Therefore, perception is nothing more than something subjective which facilitates our process of adaptation between organism and environment – fundamental in the search for a dynamic equilibrium. There is in fact a shared tendency of individuals to impose a kind of order on the daily chaos of sensations that flood our minds on the basis of a few important laws (Gestalt)

What is important is that more often than not, we only receive partial stimuli during the first process (Bottom-up) and it is through the second process (Top-down) that our mind interprets and completes this information. Therefore, on the basis of previously stored knowledge (which provides us with a pattern), it is our brain which assimilates the information, interprets it and assigns it meaning.

But what happens when we find ourselves facing an emergency – a situation of which we have no previous experience, a situation with which we are not familiar, a situation that can’t be traced back to existing patterns and thus a situation to which we find it hard to assign meaning?

Unfortunately in these cases, the risk of perceptual distortion is even greater because the threatening stimuli which cause us to label a certain situation as an ‘emergency’ are perceived with greater intensity and frequency... this happens even when these stimuli are actually in decline because it is difficult for us to reconceptualise a problem.

As Gilbert, co-author of the study Prevalence-induced concept change in human judgment:

When the problems that we are faced with become less serious, we actually become more critical and this could lead us to erroneously conclude that the situation has not improved at all. Progress, it seems, tends to get disguised.

And this undoubtedly has an impact on a wide range of important decisions (Read also: Decision-making in situations of uncertainty).


Are we therefore destined to be completely at the mercy of our distorted perceptions?

Absolutely not! With the right motivation, each one of us can work to improve ourselves and develop the right mindset as to not ‘become paralysed’ by our (distorted) perceptions of chaos... Certainly, this requires much more mental energy so we have to be prepared for the self-sabotage attempts that our brain might carry out. Especially since it is usually unwilling to consider solutions that are too onerous. (Read also: The availability of information in times of uncertainty)!