Perceptions and Beliefs Are Not Reality


By Catherine A. Sanderson, Amherst College

Think of a time when you heard a presentation, and the presenter asked, “Are there any questions?” As you thought about whether to raise your hand or not, you noticed that no one else was raising a hand and, therefore, decided not to ask your question. This example illustrates a key finding from the field of psychology that we see again and again: perceptions and beliefs are not reality.

Image shows a room full of people and a woman raising her hand in front of a speaker.
Not raising your hand to ask a question in a room full of people is a universal experience. (Image: Nattakorn_Maneerat/Shutterstock)

Does Everybody Think the Same as You?

Not raising your hand to ask a question in a room full of people is a pretty universal experience. You don’t want to look stupid, or silly, or out of touch. But here’s what’s fascinating. You know exactly why you chose not to raise your own hand, but as you look around the room at all of the other people doing exactly what you are doing (not raising their hands), you almost certainly do not think to yourself, “Gosh, those people just don’t want to look stupid.” No, instead you assume they are not raising their hands because they don’t have a question.

The decision not to raise your hand was in fact identical to that of all the other people around you not raising their hands. But you assumed that your behavior was driven by something entirely different. You didn’t raise your hand because you didn’t want to feel embarrassed for asking a stupid question. Meanwhile, you assumed their behavior was driven by their sheer intelligence, and that they just didn’t have any questions.

This article comes directly from content in the video series Introduction to Psychology. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Misconceptions Are Universal

Image shows the hand of a person pouring a drink from a bottle into a red cup.
Many college students are uncomfortable with excessive alcohol consumption on campus, but are afraid to speak out since nobody else does. (Image: Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock)

This gap between appearance and reality and misperception of the factors that drive how others behave, even when that behavior is identical to our own, occurs with great regularity in all types of situations. We assume that our reluctance to express interest in a potential romantic partner is driven by fear of rejection while seeing our would-be partner’s reluctance as indicating a lack of interest.

Many college students feel personally uncomfortable with the excessive amount of alcohol use on campus, but they believe that other students—including their friends—are personally comfortable with such behavior. Both white and black people report that they want to have more contact with members of other racial groups, but fear rejection, while they see others’ inaction as caused by a lack of interest.

Women see other women as more focused on achieving a thin body type than they themselves actually are, and more surprising, it turns out that holding such a belief, even when it’s not in fact accurate, predicts engaging in more symptoms of disordered eating.

Is ADHD Overdiagnosed?

Here’s another vivid example: The rate of kids being diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, has skyrocketed during the 21st century, and more than 5% of children in the United States take some type of ADHD medication. But in 2018, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study with a pretty surprising finding. 

In states with a September 1st birthday cutoff to start kindergarten, children born in August were 34% more likely to receive an ADHD diagnosis than children born in September of those same years. By contrast, there was no August versus September difference in rates of diagnosis for kids who lived in states with a different kindergarten cutoff date.

Image of a bored little student with no interest in doing his homework
Studies show that some younger children who naturally have low attention spans are incorrectly diagnosed with ADHD. (Image: NadyaEugene/Shutterstock)

So, this is a pretty big deal. In some states, 34% more kids were getting the diagnosis, which is typically followed by treatment—except treatment is also likely to be costly and can even lead to unwanted side effects. But why the difference? The researchers believe that these differences in rates of diagnosis are actually driven by normal differences in children’s behavior as a function of their age.

Perceptions and Beliefs Are Misleading

Children born in September just missed the prior year’s cutoff for kindergarten, so they are the oldest in the class. They basically start kindergarten and almost immediately turn six. Children born in August, on the other hand, make the cutoff but have just turned five. So, they are nearly a year younger than their peers with a September birthday.

There isn’t yet an objective way to diagnose ADHD, like a blood test, or BMI, or brain imaging. Instead, it’s made based on the presence of various symptoms, such as difficulty paying attention, getting distracted easily, and having trouble waiting their turn. 

When teachers and school personnel evaluate kids for these symptoms, they are naturally making a comparison; not just is this kid easily distracted, but is this kid more distracted than their peers? Younger kids are more distractible and less attentive than their older peers. But it’s a mistake to perceive age-related differences as signs of a disorder.

This illustrates a broader truism in psychology: The exact same thing can be interpreted in very different ways. We believe the same wine tastes better when we’re told it costs $40 a bottle than $10 a bottle; we evaluate job candidates differently based on the name on their resumes; and we prefer yogurt that is 95% percent fat-free over one that is 5% fat.

Common Questions about Perceptions and Beliefs Are Not Reality

Q: Why do most people not raise their hand to ask a question when nobody else raises a hand?

Most people don’t raise their hand to ask a question because they don’t want to feel embarrassed for asking a stupid question. Their decision is based on the common assumption that others are so smart that they don’t need to ask any question. However, it’s most probable that others are having the same thought process and are afraid to embarrass themselves as well.

Q: What are some examples of common misconceptions we have because of our inaccurate perceptions?

Common inaccurate perceptions and beliefs include thinking that other people are more aware of their body image and are focused on working on it, thinking that other college students are comfortable with excessive alcohol consumption on campus, and believing that other racial groups are not welcoming to outsiders.

Q: What is ADHD, and how is it diagnosed?

ADHD is attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. There isn’t yet an objective way to diagnose ADHD; it’s diagnosed based on the presence of various symptoms, such as difficulty paying attention, getting distracted easily, and having trouble waiting for turns. 

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