A magician pulling a rabbit from a hat

How important is it to understand how people see things? How might you shape the way people see things?

In Alchemy, Rory Sutherland discusses the importance of understanding human perception and the functions that psychological biases serve. He also explains how meaning and language are vital tools for influencing perception to a positive advantage.

Read more to learn why you should stop trying to change reality and instead seek to influence others’ perceptions of reality.

Influence Perception

According to Sutherland, it’s only when we understand our unconscious drives that human behavior starts to make sense. He asserts that the key to leveraging the unconscious mind is to influence perception, much like a magician performs sleight of hand. This works because, as neuroscience has shown, human perception can differ greatly from objective reality.

From an economic standpoint, understanding human perception is key because, in many cases, it’s cheaper to employ psychological solutions than to engineer costly “practical” fixes. In Sutherland’s words, it’s simpler to change people’s perception of reality than to change reality itself. To do this requires identifying the psychological causes at the root of human issues and desires, then creating the perception that a need has been addressed. The flipside of this coin is that “logical” solutions to real-world issues won’t be effective if they don’t also create the right perception. Right or wrong, how people see a problem has to be dealt with before the problem itself. 

(Shortform note: US President Jimmy Carter paid a high price for disregarding perceptions while tackling social issues. In His Very Best, Jonathan Alter writes that Carter governed like an engineer—devising logical solutions to problems without calculating the emotional impact his policies had on the American people. Though Carter’s policies proved effective in the long run, he failed to address the blows the US felt to its national pride, letting his political rival Ronald Reagan—a man skilled in shaping perception—control the narrative of Carter’s presidency. Reagan, like Sutherland, saw the value of engaging with people’s unconscious feelings, though whether that made his policies more effective is a matter for historians to debate.)

Sutherland says that, as annoying as the difference between human perception and objective reality can be, our cognitive biases evolved for a reason. For example, our brains place disproportionate importance on anything that stands out as unusual. This derives from our survival instincts—in the wild, any unexpected sound, movement, color, or smell might signify danger, and our minds reflexively focus and ramp up our attention on that particular thing. Even if our conscious reason might say there is no threat, our unconscious mind says, “Better safe than sorry.” Sutherland says that it’s a waste of time to argue with the unconscious—it’s far more productive to engage with it instead.

(Shortform note: While Sutherland may be right that the unconscious is a powerful tool for influencing other people, if you’re the person being influenced, disengaging the unconscious may be in your best interest. In Factfulness, Hans Rosling points out that the innate biases evolution gave us can make us overgeneralize, jump to conclusions, and perpetuate ignorance in the face of new information. Rosling recommends that to overcome these tendencies, you should practice a combination of openness and skepticism—the tools of the rationalist—while insisting on hard facts instead of the forms of persuasion that Sutherland advocates.)

Why Meaning Matters

The key to understanding human perception is to recognize that our minds focus on what objects and events mean to us much more than their physical details. Sutherland writes that this particularly applies to how we value and react to things. The magic in engaging the unconscious mind lies in using the most unlikely, illogical, and sometimes outright silly tactics to alter how people perceive something’s value, and thereby change their behavior. This is where unreason triumphs over logic—by making an object or event seem outlandish, you instinctively draw the mind’s attention to it and trick people into reframing their perception.

(Shortform note: What Sutherland presents as a magic trick for use in marketing and persuasion may actually play a much more fundamental role in holding societies together. In Maps of Meaning, Jordan Peterson argues that for the human mind, pure objectivity is impossible. Like it or not, we filter every sensory perception through the meaning that our mind assigns to it—a meaning that’s often heavily grounded in our cultural awareness. Though Sutherland labels this irrational, Peterson insists that the act of assigning meaning—which he classifies as “myth” on the cultural level—is a crucial neurological process for sorting information and making sense out of chaos. When shared, meaning is the vital glue that allows society to function.)

There are many ways to perform this magic trick, but Sutherland argues that the main ones involve language. Language is what we use to convey meaning—for instance, by drawing attention to specific details of a product, to highlight one aspect of a political candidate over others, or to reframe a negative experience into a positive. Even the most glaringly illogical uses of language and meaning can have an outsized effect on how people perceive the world, and by extension, the experienced reality that our perceptions create.

(Shortform note: The power of language to reframe perception is effective even when you’re consciously aware that such tactics are being employed. In Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, he recounts that Jobs, the cofounder of Apple Computers, emitted what his employees dubbed a “reality distortion field.” Through the power of words alone, Jobs was able to convince his workers to meet deadlines, create features, and redesign systems even when they told him that such things were impossible. More often than not, Jobs was proven right—but first he had to alter workers’ perception before reality bent to his will. Though Sutherland suggests changing perceptions instead of reality, Jobs somehow found a way to do both.)

Influence Perception (and Stop Trying to Change Reality)

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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