Posts tagged “perception as reality

Getting Stuck in the Terrible Two’s

The terrible two’s – an iconic rite of passage when a toddler becomes aware of his abilities, his personal preferences, and the discovery that he can disagree and even say no. The terrible two’s are famous for causing parental frustration as children resist being coached toward trust and cooperation. Two year olds can be pretty adamant about their view of things.


In the last post, Perceptions as Portraits, Not Photographs, we were reminded that reality, for each of us, is not so much like a photograph in its exactness, but instead is a like a portrait that we paint, very much a creation based on our values and preferences. It is a significant thing to realize that reality is your perception of it. One reason for its significance is that we can admit that we don’t have all the information or all the answers, and that new information can therefore affect our view of reality. I can be an on-going learner, open to new facts and experiences.

Your view of reality is like a portrait you paint.

A two-year-old, it turns out, wrestles with reality, too. Some of our insights about two year old behavior we get through our own observations, while other such insights we get from people like Jean Piaget (1896-1980), a Swiss psychologist and researcher who became very interested in children’s cognitive development.


A young Jean Piaget, probably the age when he worked at the school for boys in Paris.

The book I spoke highly of in the last post, Stumbling on Happiness, describes one of Piaget’s discoveries very well, especially as it relates to the theme of perceptions as portraits, not photographs. Here is a wonderful passage from the book –

In the 1920s, the psychologist Jean Piaget noticed that the young child often fails to distinguish between her perception of an object and the object’s actual properties, hence she tends to believe that things really are as they appear to be—and that others must therefore see them as she does. When a two-year old child sees her playmate leave the room, and then sees an adult remove a cookie from a cookie jar and hide it in a drawer, she expects that her playmate will later look for the cookie in the drawer—despite the fact that her playmate was not in the room when the adult moved the cookie to the drawer from the jar. Why? Because the two-year old child knows the cookie is in the drawer and thus expects that everyone else knows this as well. Without a distinction between things in the world and things in the mind, the child cannot understand how different minds can contain different things. Of course, with increasing maturity, children shift from realism to idealism, coming to realize that perceptions are merely points of view, that what they see is not necessarily what there is, and that two people may thus have different perceptions of or beliefs about the same thing. Piaget concluded that “the child is a realist in its thought” and that “its progress consists in ridding itself of this initial realism.” In other words, like philosophers, ordinary people start out as realists but we get over it soon enough.
Dan Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

But do we? Do we come to see that others may view something differently than us, or do we at times seem to be stuck at the level of . . . well . . . a two year old? The realistic or photographic view is so appealing, especially when it comes to religion or politics or the behavior of our spouse. Things are exactly as we see them, right?

Recognizing that we don’t know everything or that what we know can change doesn’t mean that we can’t have convictions and strong beliefs. Each of us can and will continue to paint a canvas of reality that represents our view of things, of people, of events, and of ideas. It’s important, though, to also recognize that as we paint our reality that we are doing just that, that there is a paint brush in our hand and that we are capturing events and ideas as we see them, and that everything that we have been and are, everything we hold dear and value, is somehow influencing the canvas in our heads, influencing our reality.


It may sound crazy, but our mental health actually depends on being aware of this truth. When we help students understand concepts like forgiveness and working through disagreements with a classmate, when we mentor them in conflict resolution and teach them about perspective and empathy, seeds for the betterment of students and society are planted. Piaget saw the importance of schools in this matter when he said –

Only education is capable of saving our societies from possible collapse, whether violent, or gradual.


Fun Facts:

+ Piaget was referred to as “the great pioneer of the constructivist theory of knowing.” I am a constructivist so I think he and I would have gotten along fine here.

+ After graduation Piaget went to work in Paris at a school for boys. The school was run by Alfred Binet, the developer of the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test (think IQ test). Piaget got involved marking the tests and while doing so he began to notice that young children consistently gave wrong answers for certain questions. That is what got him started in his life study.

Perceptions as Portraits, not Photographs

I do a lot of my reading on my iPad. Books that I am reading or continuing to re-read I keep on my main iBooks screen. I have created a folder for Finished Fiction and another one for Finished Non-Fiction. Usually when I finish a book I move it to one of those folders. In a few cases, though, even after finishing a book I leave it on my main screen, since I know I will be going back to it again and again. Such is the case with Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness (2006). More than his funny, even irreverent, style of writing, I am drawn to the amazing research studies to which he refers and bases his points. This research points to the incredible complexity of human beings and the processes that affect our thinking and behavior, a complexity ultimately anchored and intertwined in choice.



According to Choice Theory, people are always in the process of creating and monitoring their view of reality. A person’s view of reality has a great deal to do with how she relates to others and especially how she values her own status. This view affects how events are interpreted. Our personal view of reality is a big deal.

It is on that word personal, at least when it comes to their view of reality, that many stumble and eventually disagree. We see with our eyes what is and we hear with our ears what is – and that means, we figure, that we know what is. Previous posts have commented on the frustrations, and even dangers, of this way of thinking. (e.g. – Three Types of People – Awesome, Dangerous, and Run and Why Are So Many Christians So Un-Christian?) Is it possible that what we see and hear is somehow different than what we see and hear?

A portrait, not a photograph, of John Locke.

Immanuel Kant, showing off the look of the day. What keeps this hair from coming back into vogue?

Given that Solomon was right when he said that “there is nothing new under the sun,” (Eccl. 1:9) Stumbling on Happiness reminds us that the argument over how we perceive reality has been around for some time. John Locke, English philosopher of the Enlightenment and regarded as the Father of Liberalism, described the theory of realism in 1690, which explained that our senses confirm that things exist and that this existence produces an idea that we then perceive. Almost a hundred years later Immanuel Kant threw that way of thinking out the door. His theory of idealism in 1781, instead described a multi-faceted process through which a person’s picture of reality is created. An excerpt from Stumbling on Happiness says it best –

Kant’s new theory of idealism claimed that our perceptions are not the result of a physiological process by which our eyes somehow transmit an image of the world into our brains, but rather, they are the result of a psychological process that combines what our eyes see with what we already think, feel, know, want, and believe, and then uses this combination of sensory information and preexisting knowledge to construct our perception of reality. “The understanding can intuit nothing, the senses can think nothing,” Kant wrote. “Only through their union can knowledge arise.” The historian Will Durant performed the remarkable feat of summarizing Kant’s point in a single sentence: “The world as we know it is a construction, a finished product, almost—one might say—a manufactured article, to which the mind contributes as much by its moulding forms as the thing contributes by its stimuli.”

I think Gilbert summarized the centuries-old argument even better when he wrote that “Perceptions are portraits, not photographs, and their form reveals the artist’s hand every bit as much as it reflects the things portrayed.”

Perceptions are portraits, not photographs.


Locke believed the eyes and the mind combined to produce a photograph, a perfect replica of reality, whereas Kant believed the eyes, and all the other senses, combined with the mind to create a painting of reality that represents sometimes our best guess, sometimes a deep need or want, but always a reality that is meaningful to us and that makes sense. The research in Stumbling on Happiness reveals that Kant was right. The ideas of Choice Theory certainly affirm the accuracy of perceptions as portraits.

Whether we view our perceptions as photographs or portraits is a big deal! It’s a big deal when it comes to our mental health, primarily because it’s a big deal in our relationships. Of course, how we perceive reality affects all aspects of our behavior, including how we vote politically, how we drive a car at rush hour, how we manage children and students, how we see gun control, and how we worship, to name just a few. If we believe our senses take in a perfect picture of reality, like a photograph, then there isn’t much to talk about when faced with a person who supposedly sees things differently. The photograph in our head confirms our rightness; there is no need to talk about differences, other than to inform the other person of their being wrong. Such a view, as you might guess, leads to a narrow, locked-in mentality and hurts relationships in the process.

If we believe our senses take in a perfect picture of reality,
like a photograph, then there isn’t much to talk about
when faced with a person who supposedly sees things differently.

Being able to recognize our own role in forming our picture of reality creates a healthy freedom that allows us to learn from changing circumstances, especially when it comes to communicating with those whom we love. We allow that we don’t know everything and that we are open to new information. Because of seeing reality as a portrait we are constantly in the process of painting and modifying, we are more able to accept and respect the knowledge and views of others. This perspective skill set is one of the keys to empathy, which is a powerful piece of mental health and a huge piece in healthy relationships.

We do our children and students a big favor when we teach them about how we each paint a portrait of the world as we see it. Such knowledge allows for growth (mindset) and prepares the way for positive relationships in the future.

If you haven’t already read it, I encourage you to check out Stumbling on Happiness. It is an enjoyable read that is chock full of insight.


Such as are your habitual thoughts;
such also will be the character of your mind;
for the soul is dyed by the thoughts.

Marcus Aurelius


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