Perceptions vs. Reality, by Phin Upham
What is really out there? Why do we think that we think? Phin Upham explores some of the classic works on the topic.
Ross and Nisbett argue that our perceptions of ourselves and our casual attributions for our actions are not in fact complete or correct: we are not born tabla rasa, we do not consistently build basic beliefs, and we cannot predict or control the way we will act. Phychologists and sociologists provide support for this through numerous studies that show a basically consistent, unpredicted, and unsystematic patterns of behavior. Some authors begin by breaking down the idea that our opinions or reactions are as independent and systematic as we may believe. Sherif’s “autokinetic” study and the Ash Paradigm study illustrate that we often act differently when in groups (with group norms, pressure, bias, and social factors). We conform to group pressure (Ash), or, even more extremely, shift our perceptions in order to align ourselves with a group (Sherrif). The Bennington studies, which show how our beliefs about the world are deeply and irreversibly influenced by our social surroundings, illustrate that this effect is not trivial or isolated but instead can have far-reaching and self-defining consequences.
Sherif’s later studies on group dynamics similarly show us that our world perceptions (us vs. them, me vs. you, good vs. bad) can be arbitrary. Chapter three expands on this point with a social slant: Our world is constructed in a social setting and so the opinions of others and the judgments of others play a dynamic part in this construction. I.e., our world is not necessarily “warped” by others opinions but others opinions actually play a role in determining what our world looks like. The “attribution theory of emotion” and the Nisbett and Wilson (1977) cognitive process blindness theory take this one step further claiming that we do not really see the world as we think we do at all.
Ross and Nisbett impose their own interpretation on these findings. They repeatedly argue that we interpret and construct the world in a dynamic way, based on the perceptions and influences of our social surroundings, situational factors, and personality characteristics. They then claim that we are overly unaware that we are only seeing one way to interpret the world. “This lack of awareness of our own construal processes blinds us to the possibility that someone else, differently situated, might construe the same objects in a different way… People sometimes construe the same object differently because they view it from different angles rather than because they are fundamentally different people…. The divergence [exhibited in the Asch experiments] may reflect differences not in the “judgment of the object” but in the construal of just what “the object of judgment” is.” (p82). We make the false assumption that we see it as it is rather than as we interpret it. It is not clear here whether the differences in individual interpretations of the worlds are due only to different external factors (social, environmental, etc) or also to different processing factors (i.e. the mental and physical machines with which we process this information).
Ross and Nisbett do not explicitly state what I see as a major consequence, and synthesis, of both their chapters and much of the literature. But perhaps this is because I do not have and have not read their later chapters. With this caveat, Ross and Nisbett (1) begin by attempting to prove that our world is to an extent an arbitrary construction. They continue (2) by showing that it is important to us that out world be in line with others in our group or reference set (social pressure) and they end (3) with the interesting claim that we misunderstand the world in a fundamental way (with mistakes in traits, etc). To me there is a clear logical step that stands between their points (1) and (2). That (1.5) that we are, on some deep unconscious level, insecure and unsure of the ontological nature of the world and thus need to constantly adjust our view of it depending on the situation and context (see they do not take William James’ point on p. 68 seriously enough) or align ourselves with others in order to attempt to interpret it in the best/most useful way.
It helps if we assume for a moment that there is no “correct” way to interpret the world – and Ross and Nisbett I think would agree with this. Perhaps even the idea of a “correct” way to interpret the world is a non-sensical statement. All constructions are heuristics simplifications intrinsically since the world does not have, unlike our constructions of the world, imbedded causality only systematic temporal correlations. An interpretation is meant, therefore, to be useful in our world, which a deeply social and dynamic one. Why is it therefore surprising that we adjust, conform to, and closely monitor others opinions? If our interpretations are wrong, and we know they always are, there is no good reason to stick to them if they are not working. Our perception of length is clearly not functioning correctly if it derives an answer different from everyone else (since deriving an answer that is useful is our goal, not deriving an answer that is true and it is useful to have an agreed upon idea of length).
So the surprising thing is that we ever believe that we are objectively right about things or that we believe our views are “the way things are,” not that we adjust our world-views in the face of social, environmental, or situational pressure (and various evolutionary psychology arguments have attempted to explain this argument on the grounds of efficiency). Bishop Berkeley, Occationalism, and David Hume have all trodden this ground. I do not mean to make the facile claim that we should always give in to social pressure, that we should always tailor our views to match those around us, only that to explain a deviation from this behavior one need to apply to other reasons than one being “correct” or, even, more arguably, perhaps, “truth.” That our views are deeply inadequate and inefficient, as chapter four argues, is a much harsher claim leveled by Ross and Nisbett in this context.
The literature often builds up a model of perception/ internal_world-creation and the later then added a component questioning the element of causality. For example, Straw, Bell, Clausen piece questions the emergent literature on situational attributions to job attitudes in favor of a more dispositional approach. Studies, they claim lay too much emphasis on the social, the interpretational elements of a job, over-stating the role that the work environment that will determine an individual’s happiness in it. Instead, one can correlate the individual’s happiness and job satisfaction in many respects well before he/she enters the work place. Thus, it is the characteristics, attitudes, and nature and the individual who is the prime determinant of whether or not he/she is happy in the job. This research is interestingly interrelated to the previous Ross Nisbett piece, since Ross and Nisbett’s argument that the person interprets the environment lends itself to the conclusion that no matter what environment an individual is put into, he/she will largely affect the way he/she perceives that environment and thus his/her feelings about it.
In contrast to Straw, et al., Davis-Blake and Pfeffer (1989) argue that the dispositionalist argument is deeply flawed. They claim that the individual’s characteristics are dynamic in nature and therefore they change in time and are furthermore deeply affected by their environment. Therefore, one can expect that an employee, especially in the long term, will be very deeply affected by the nature and prevailing attitudes of his/her workplace. They point to the extreme cases of military training facilities, which are able to dramatically affect the psychology of an individual. Sneider (1987) returns fire with a volley that asserts that the “culture” of a firm is simply the people in it. That these people are self-selecting and will tend to attract compatible people, and that the world is a dynamic place of individuals, not forces. The last piece of the puzzle, the piece by Arvey and Bouchard (1994) builds a strong foundation under the dispositionalist camp but also shows the complexity of the problem. It addresses the nature vs. nurture debate by reviewing the literature to show that while it seems that genetics do make some difference (this lends credit to dispositionalists who would like to claim that people have characteristics, genetic or otherwise, that persist over time) environment is also a large factor (situationalists can grab onto this evidence).
This debate, first between situationalists and dispositionalists about the source of ones attitude about the workplace, and then about the source of our personality (nature vs. nurture) have serious consequences which many of the authors discuss. If we are in fact shaped by our environments, then companies might want to invest significant resources into “culture” and creating a productive workplace. But if our attitudes and productivity are a function of our personalities, then companies might want to select those people with attractive qualities for their company. This has troubling moral consequences as some authors point out.
I would like to emphasize how these points are building up a literature that focuses on central questions about why we view the world the way we do, what effects the world has on us, and what the source of our feelings, attitudes and lives are. The battle lines of the difference sides of this debate are, from this perspective, artificially clear.
If, for example, we ask the question of FREE WILL, for example, the sides dramatically shift. The dispositionalist camp splits into two, some taking a deterministic evolutionary view and others taking view that our personalities are developed early by our environment. The situationalists might point out that we CHOOSE our workplaces and thus choose the sorts of influences that will shape our character. So while we are not in total control of what we will feel about our job, our creativity, etc, we can choose what sorts of forces will affect these metrics. Aristotle, who’s view on almost anything is worth looking up, coined the phrase Akrasia, and this phrase can be applied to this bebate with perhaps some fruitful insights. It is Greek for “weakness of will”. He claimed that we are morally responsible for the consequences of a choice in the long term, even if we are not morally free at the time of our choices. The best modern example of this is if one chooses to get drunk one is responsible for one’s actions while drunk even if one does not have the ability to control one’s actions while drunk. So one is responsible for choosing the path that led to an action even if one is not directly responsible for that action. Of course, Aristotle chose the more controversial example of choosing to live a life of moral weakness and moral compromise which weakened the will to the point that one was not a good/moral person. He claimed that one was responsible for immorality not because we choose to become weak enough to do these acts. I think that these different camps might gain some insight into their nature/nurture dispositionalist/situationalist objective/subjective debates if Aristotle’s wisdom were headed more carefully.
Ross, L. & Nisbett, R.E. (1991). The Person and the Situation: Perspectives of Social Psychology. New York: McGraw Hill. Chapters 2, 3, & 4.
Asch, S.E. (1958). Effects of group pressure upon the modification and distortion of judgments. In E.E. Maccoby; T.M. Newcomb & E.L. Hartley (eds.), Reading in Social Psychology. New York: Henry Holt and Company (pp. 174-183).
Staw, B.; Bell, N. & Clausen, J. (1986). The dispositional approach to job attitudes: A lifetime longitudinal test. Administrative Science Quarterly, 31: 56-77.
Davis-Blake, Alison & Pfeffer, Jeffrey. (1989). Just a mirage: The search for dispositional effects in organizational research. Academy of Management Review, 14: 385-400.
Schneider, Benjamin. (1987). The people make the place. Personnel Psychology, 40: 437-453.
Arvey, R.D. & Bouchard, T.J. (1994). Genetic twins and organizational behavior. In B.M. Staw & L.L. Cummings (eds.), Research in Organizational Behavior, 16: 47-82.
Phin Upham has a PhD in Applied Economics from the Wharton School (University of Pennsylvania). Phin is a Term Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Tags: Perception , Reality , Motivation
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