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December 2019

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The Perils Of Perception by Bobby Duffy

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Best for:
People wondering how on earth everyone else can have such misconstrued ideas (hint: you do too!).

In a nutshell:
Author Duffy explores areas in which people tend to vastly over- or underestimate facts, and why that might be.

Worth quoting:
“Our misperceptions can provide clues to what we’re most worried about – and where we’re not as worries as we should be.”

Why I chose it:
I’ve known that I — and others — will often overestimate how bad things are, or underestimate how good things are, and that often in the face of facts that don’t match our beliefs, people will just … double down. I wanted to learn more about why that is.

Review:
There is a lot going on in this book, and I won’t be able to do it all justice, so I hope if the topic interests you you’ll consider checking it out. But here is my attempt!

Have you seen “Sleepless in Seattle”? I have. It’s one of my favorite films. There’s a scene near the beginning, where Meg Ryan’s character Annie is in the office talking with her colleagues about that statistic about how a woman over 40 is more likely to be killed by a terrorist than to get married. And Annie says that the statistic is not true, and Rosie O’Donnell’s character Becky responds with “That’s right, it’s not true. But it feels true.”

So much of what we get wrong about facts stem from this idea. If it feels like, say murders are on the rise (perhaps because you see murders reported on the news each night), or members of a certain religion are immigrating to your country in large numbers (because many politicians keep pointing out the locations of their houses of worship as a threat to their idea of the dominant culture), you might not believe it when people tell you that murders are down, or the population of that specific religion in your country is about five times less than your guess.

Duffy discusses this, as well as the idea that our errors in answering questions about verifiable facts often reflects our worries. We might overestimate how much of our nation’s budget goes to foreign aid (extremely small amount) by dozens of percentage point because we fear that not enough money is being spent at home. We might overestimate violent crime because we are worried about walking home in our own neighborhood at night. We are factually wrong, but our perceptions are based in our emotions, and those are hard things to adjust.

This book looks at other reasons why we are so wrong – including that we think other people are more like us than they actually are – but I found those two aspects the most compelling.

I was also intrigued by the fact that while there are definitely issues with the spread of bad information on social media, we aren’t necessarily more poorly informed than we were, say, 80 years ago. Our perceptions are generally pretty bad all the time – but perhaps now people are noticing it more.

The book ends with ten suggestions for how we can improve our own perceptions and understanding of the world. My favorite was ‘Accept the emotion, but challenge the thought.’ I might hear a statistic or fact that goes against my beliefs. And its okay to have a reaction to that. But then I need to start thinking through it critically and explore why I’m having the reaction I’m having, what it means if that fact is correct, and how my values and worldview are impacted by that, instead of just saying ‘that can’t be right, I don’t believe it.’

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