We Don’t Really See What’s There: Factors that Change our Perceptions of Reality

Do we see, hear, feel, and experience genuine reality – what is really and truly before us? Possibly not. There are many studies that show how fear or other psychological or environmental factors can change how we perceive what is around us. How people process and respond to these perceptions can have a radical impact on addiction treatment.

Fear is a great motivator to drink and abuse substances. One of the slogans people frequently use in 12 step programs is about fear: False Evidence Appearing Real. Research shows that fear can affect our perception of reality. For example, some people are afraid of heights and others are not. This is a common fear to which many people can relate. How is it that one person in a family might be terrified of heights and another could find sky-diving a delightful diversion? One study suggests that phobias, such as fear of heights, may be an improper processing of a normal fear response to what might be a dangerous situation.

Evolved navigation theory (ENT) instead suggests that acrophobia [fear of heights] consists of a more normal fear of stimuli perceived abnormally.

The results of another study found that distance was perceived to be much farther when participants walked up or down a steep hill while carrying a weighted backpack compared with walking on a flat landscape for the same distance. A different study found that people who had a low sense of social power  perceived the weight of boxes as heavier than the participants who had high social power.

This is the first demonstration suggesting that power, a psychosocial construct that relates to the control of resources, changes the perception of physical properties of objects.

Together, these and other studies indicate that there are many factors that can change our perceptions of reality. Can we use knowledge to our advantage when treating addiction or other disorders? Yes.

These studies teach us that how a person perceives the world is much more important than how it “really” may be. A good therapist doesn’t argue with an individual’s perceptions of the world, but rather works with those perceptions. Later in the therapeutic process, the therapist might help the client to revise his or her perceptions of reality. We can re-tell stories or re-cast events in a new light, to help diminish their impact on us. Situations that were once triggers can become less so, if we approach them and learn to see them in a new way. Anything can change with treatment, even how we view our world!


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