Perception and Judging

I was trying to explain the idea of perception to my eldest son this morning in a bid to get him to assess his behaviour and how it impacts on his life. (He is on report for his poor behaviour at school – he has special educational needs and if he struggles to cope with work in class his behaviour is affected (why he is on report and not assisted in class is a different issue and discussed on my other blog!

Needless to say I didn’t have much joy with this – he struggles to understand how his behaviour impacts on others let alone how the perception of his behaviour and impact negatively on how teachers respond to him! So I left it and vowed to come back to this issue another day.

However this brought to mind my own experiences of how our perceptions of people are swayed by other people’s judgements. I was teaching at a school in Botswana and was informed that I would be teaching a boy, let’s say his name was John (it wasn’t) , who had been expelled from his last school due to poor behaviour.

Thankfully I didn’t go in with any preconceived ideas of how this boy’s behaviour would be – I didn’t have the time to think about it in all honesty as I was teaching him that morning. I was surprised by what I discovered – I actually quite liked the boy! He was outspoken – yes – and he liked to have a bit of a laugh but that was manageable. He was bright and if you kept him busy he quietened down considerably.

Later that week I was praising John’s behaviour and work and was met by blank stares from some of his other teachers. They were aghast! They found him to be rude, disruptive and a problem. It was my turn to be stunned. Was this the same boy I was teaching? Unfortunately it would appear that a number of teachers had prejudged this boy based on his past history and had him earmarked as trouble before he had even entered their class. So what ever he did – rightly or wrongly – was prejudged. He didn’t stand a chance!

We have all unfortunately prejudged other people at some time or other, based on other’s perceptions of them. It is part of human nature to prejudge (it makes life simpler – we don’t have to judge for ourselves) but it leaves us sometimes with a tainted view on how we perceive another individual.

As we have already formed an opinion of them we meet them with preconceived ideas of how they will behave and because we do this so well, we then begin to look for evidence to back up our opinion of them. And it’s amazing what you can find when you go looking for things – even if they don’t exist!

There have been several studies looking into how our perceptions of others affect how we respond and how when we are given incorrect information about an individual, we subconsciously begin to look for evidence to back up this information. One such study was done in a school in the States. Teachers were provided information on students that was incorrect. So children who were underperforming were reported to be gifted; child who were reported to struggle  were in fact gifted, and another had behavioural issues when in fact this was far from the truth.

Over time, the child who was ‘gifted’ made amazing progress and was pushed to excel. His teacher noted how bright he was. The child who struggled (he was in fact gifted) did indeed gain poor grades and the ‘naughty’ child was of course found to be naughty! So now you can begin to understand how your preconceived ideas about other people may well be affecting how you respond to them!

So next time you listen to mindless gossip or your work colleague expresses an opinion on the new manager, make a note that what the other person is expressing is merely their perception (which might even be based on somebody else’s perception too) and not fact. When you meet someone new base your opinion of them – on what you see before you and not what you have heard. After all, wouldn’t you prefer someone to judge you for who you are and not who other people think you are?

Whilst perception is based on a number of factors other than just other people’s opinions (your own life experiences, past relationships etc) it is important to remember that who we see in front of us is not necessarily who other people see and neither is it ‘correct’ either – it is after all our perception.

So next time you find yourself forming an opinion about someone who you haven’t met – think again. Perception is just an opinion, an idea – it is not fact. So make sure you make up your own mind about other people just as you would like other people to make up their own minds about you and remember – who you see might not be who they really are!

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