How Small Differences in Perception can have Potentially Major Consequences

Eyes on the prize

“The church is near but the road is icy; the bar is far away but I will walk carefully.”

[Russian proverb]

What makes some people see the glass as half full and others half empty? What is the connection between our minds and body? Does it leads us to see the world differently? Social psychologist Emily Balcetis set to find out.

She focused her question on health. She says, when it comes to fitness, some people quite literally see the world differently from othersTo overcome these differences Balcetis offers a surprisingly simple solution that helped people use their visual competence to focus better:

Across the world, people are struggling to manage their weight, and there is a variety of strategies that we have to help us keep the pounds off. For instance, we set the best of intentions to exercise after the holidays, but actually, the majority of Americans find that their New Year's resolutions are broken by Valentine's Day.

We talk to ourselves in very encouraging ways, telling ourselves this is our year to get back into shape, but that is not enough to bring us back to our ideal weight. So why? Of course, there is no simple answer, but one reason, I argue, is that our mind's eye might work against us. Some people may literally see exercise as more difficult, and some people might literally see exercise as easier.

The idea came from observing a correlation between fitness and visual focus. In experiments, people with a smaller hip to waist ratio —indicative of a more active lifestyle— saw the finish line closer than a comparative group with a higher hip to waist ratio. They then turned to vision science literature to identify useful instruction.

She says:

we came up with a strategy that we called, “Keep your eyes on the prize.” So this is not the slogan from an inspirational poster. It's an actual directive for how to look around your environment. People that we trained in this strategy, we told them to focus their attention on the finish line, to avoid looking around, to imagine a spotlight was shining on that goal, and that everything around it was blurry and perhaps difficult to see.

It reminded me of the WWDC 1997 Q&A where Steve Jobs addresses, “What do we do about the press?” Focusing in business involves making decisions on trade offs, so we spend our energy on the right things:

I'm sure you've had this experience. Where you change. You're growing as a person. And people tend to treat you like you were 18 months ago. And it's really frustrating sometimes. When you're growing up and you're becoming more capable and you've solved, maybe you had some personality quirks you've gotten over.

Whatever that may be. And people are still treating you the same way they were treating you like a year or 18 months ago. It's very frustrating. Well, it's the same with a company.

It's the same with the press. The press is going to have a lag time. And the best thing we can do about the press is to embrace them, do the best we can to educate them about the strategy. But we need to keep our eye on the prize.

And that is turning out some great products, communicating directly with our customers the best we can. Getting the community of people that are going to make this stuff successful like yourselves in the loop, so you know everything and is marching forward, one foot in front of the other.

The press will take care of itself. It's like the stock price. The press and the stock price will take care of themselves. By the end of this year, it's going to look quite different.

When we focus on the finish line, we have the benefit of seeing it up to 30 percent closer than it actually is, says Balcetis. Would the perception change with conditions? Balcetis and team tested the question by adding weights to people's ankles and providing the same instruction to “keep their eyes on the prize.” Those same people reported that the exertion required was 17 percent less than the control group.

“We all see the world through our mind's eye, but we can teach ourselves to see it differently,” says Balcetis. We see the world based on how we feel about things. For example, on a bad day, our perception paints everything with the same brush. Our upset colors every interaction we have with strong hues.

But it doesn't have to be that way. We can shift our perception by suspending judgement in our thinking and join conversations in listening mode, using curiosity to refocus our attention on what the other person sees vs. what we see, for example.

How well we manage attention benefits us on many levels. We can learn to go with the flow more to make it easier on ourselves to go through the day. There is a link between attention and creativity, which is an essential skill to develop.

Our outlook makes a big difference in how we solve problems. We can make better decisions by starting with how we see the world around us.

Watch the full talk below.


For more research on perception, see fondness makes the distance grow shorter with Adam Alter.


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