The Myth of Perception: Can We Trust Our Senses?

The Myth of Perception //

We tend to trust our perceptions to be neutral and unbiased. In reality, however, this is almost never the case. From our most basic senses, such as sight, to the more complex political and sociological views we build of the world, ours brains draw inferences based on how we expect things to be. Misinformation is a dangerous threat precisely because it influences what we expect of the world and how we perceive it.  And it does so in such a primary level that this bias often goes entirely unnoticed.


Humans, like other animals, have developed special abilities that allow them to perceive the world. We call those gateways of sensory information our senses, and we tend to trust those senses to provide us with a loyal and objective reading of what’s around us. Sight, for example, arguably our most developed sense, works when one of the sensorial tools we have – the eye – processes the different beans of light that get reflected by objects and reach one of its composing parts, the retina. That light is then translated into neural impulses which are sent to the brain. It’s not in the eyes but rather inside our heads that vision happens.

If on one end of this process the information that makes its way to our body through light is indeed largely unbiased, on the other end this information is then processed by our complex brains, where it may get distorted. It happens that, when processing information, our brains make inferences. We call unconscious inference the process through which our brains make assumptions as to what we’re sensing in order to correct for the limitations in our senses (“unconscious”, because we don’t choose them nor realise they’re happening). German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz, the first to coin this term, realised that our eyes are in fact surprisingly incapable of producing high-quality images and that much of what we see is inferred by the brain based on prior experiences of the world. When we look, we expect light to come from above, faces to be upright, figures to have convex borders and closer objects to partially block the view of more distant objects, for example, and those expectations actually shape what we see – or think we see. Sometimes, that prior experience we have built may lead us to a faulty interpretation of what we’re looking at, and we might become victims of the so-called optical illusions. Sight is just an example, and we make inferences when using all our senses.

Whilst those environmental inferences come from very elementary and empirical expectations, other expectations shaping our perceptions of the world might be more complex social constructs. The field of marketing, for example, is largely dedicated to studying ways of actively influencing people’s perceptions of brands and products. The Pepsi vs. Coca-Cola dispute is a great example of how this plays out. In the Pepsi Challenge marketing campaign, Pepsi claims that although Coca-Cola sells considerably more most people actually prefer Pepsi’s taste when trying both products in blind tests. Indeed, independent research has shown that, when people try both products in unlabelled recipients and thus unaware of their brand, not only the preference for Coca-Cola tends to disappear, but also the way the brands are perceived in purely objective criteria such as sweetness and caffeine intake drastically changes. In fact, most people are unable to identify the brand they are tasting. This means that, although participants are putting the exact same thing in their mouths, what they actually feel when they are conscious of the brands – or how their brains interpret the sensorial stimulus received by the mouth – is deeply impacted by elements which are completely unrelated to the actual physical substance reaching their taste buds. What they feel differs therefore based mostly on the ideas they have built around those brands. This proves that the way we expect things to be can change how we actually perceive them at a deeper level. It can change what we feel at such a primary level that we cannot consciously identify the bias performed by the brain between the physiological stimulus we receive and what actually gets to our minds.

Those expectation-driving ideas are particularly relevant because not only they shape our perception of products, but also of people and the world beyond. They make our views prone to manipulation – and, because they affect what we sense, those distorted views feel true and unbiased. Whereas more basic inference is derived directly from experience, those more sophisticated distortions are largely built through the stories that we are told, making storytelling one of the most powerful social tools of the contemporary world.

“Those expectation-driving ideas are particularly relevant because not only they shape our perception of products, but also of people and the world beyond. They make our views prone to manipulation – and, because they affect what we sense, those distorted views feel true and unbiased. “

When it comes to products, the stories are told mostly by the brands and their marketing campaigns. When it comes to people and places, the storytelling is done by a much broader universe of agents – the media, the government, the educational system and the broader universe of people we interact with (see How are our opinions fomed?). If for example an article with fabricated facts or misleading opinions manages to influence how you expect something to be, then you are more likely to interpret reality in a biased way whilst firmingly believing you are being true to your senses and to logic.

Stories shape our world, even when they are entirely false and, strikingly, even when we know they are false. They shape our world because they change what we expect of it and how we perceive it, but also because our distorted perceptions shape our actions and eventually the reality around us. If we want a better world, we need better stories.

Learn more about stories and how they impact us on The Power of Storytelling.

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