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Events lie in the eye of the beholder

Events lie in the eye of the beholder

“Man is affected, not by events, but by the view he takes of them.” – Epictetus

My last two blogs examined how external factors influence how we view decisions and then showed how even the conscious visual image we end up with has been distorted by our preconscious mind. Now, I’d like to continue looking at perception, but this time at the internal things that distort how we go about interacting with the world.

Let’s start with an exercise I used to present to all my classes when I lectured first-year Psychology:

You’re walking down a high street of a reasonably busy town one weekend and you look up and spot someone you know a few metres ahead of you in the crowd. You wave and call out to them, but they dart into a nearby shop without acknowledging you. What do you take away from the event? What is your explanation for their behaviour?

My students provided different responses to this exercise but some recurring themes included:

  • “They probably didn’t see me.”
  • “They’re probably annoyed at me for something.”
  • “They obviously don’t like me that much.”
  • “They’re so annoying!”

In this example, Epictetus’ quote rings true. It’s exactly the same scenario, but the interpretation is radically different depending on who you ask. Albert Ellis, the American psychologist who developed rational emotive behaviour therapy, visualised this with a very simple model:

He used this as a therapy tool to help people appreciate that, in many cases, it was their interpretation of scenarios, rather than the scenario itself, that was unpleasant. However, it’s worth stopping to think next time you get irritated by something. Are you annoyed because the situation is actually frustrating or because you’ve interpreted to be this way?

Mood can play a significant role in our interpretation of events, which is why we often find ourselves having “one of those mornings” where nothing goes right. In most cases, it isn’t necessarily that more of bad things are happening to us than usual, and more likely that we are interpreting everything through our negative perspective lens.


Here’s another example of event interpretation that I love:

  1. If you’re a driver I want you to metaphorically (or actually do it if you’re keen) raise your hand
  2. Now, keep your hand up if you think you’re an alright driver or better.
  3. Now, keep your hand up if you’re ever been cut up.
  4. Now, keep your hand up  if when you’re been cut up you’ve in some way gotten cross at the other driver because they cut you up e.g. sworn at them, yelled they’re a rubbish driver, internally ranted about why there are so many incompetents on the road (maybe I have a road rage problem).
  5. Now, keep your hand up if you’ve ever cut someone up.
  6. Now, keep your hand up if you’ve ever cut someone up deliberately.

There may be a few honest individuals around whose hands are (metaphorically or otherwise) still raised, but I suspect the vast majority of hands stayed in the air right the way through from step one to step five, before suddenly dropping upon reaching step six. Hopefully, the penny has dropped as well.

This is pretty common. To protect ourselves, we’re very good at putting an overemphasis on our own behaviour being internally driven when good (we tried hard), and externally driven when bad (it was an accident). Meanwhile for others, we only ever assume that they are driving the decision and we never consider that it could be an external factor working on them.

These examples are amusing but they, like our conscious visual perception, happen primarily without our conscious knowledge. Without wanting to get too Freudian on you, all the ways you interpret the world by large come from the experiences you had as a child and how the world was presented when you were learning about it.

Another great example of the dangers of allowing our interpretation to overtake us is in the form of impostor syndrome (you can read more about this in an awesome blog by Louise Formby!)

Given that software engineers work in a creative environment, they’re constantly imagining new designs, features, or solutions for which there’s no objectively correct option. This means always looking at the outcome through an interpretative lens. We must also take into account the fact that they work in a collaborative environment, which means constantly being surrounded by the work their peers are creating.

So the next time you’re worried about a piece of work, or you feel impostor syndrome setting in, take a breath, look at the facts and assess whether your thinking stems from the situation itself, or the interpretation of the situation. It sounds like a really simple and silly thing, but the difference this has made to my life (personally, academically and now professionally) is astounding. We can probably all agree that a high proportion of the conflicts and issues we face in the office stem from misinterpretation rather than a disagreement of principles.

AJ King, Organisational Scientist

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