Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Do Your Perceptions affect Beliefs which affect Actions? Or is it the Other Way Around?

It is so easy for us to understand how our Perceptions influence our Beliefs, our Beliefs shape our Actions, and our Actions affect our environment and thereby what we Perceive.  This cycle is so culturally ingrained, that we find it embedded in our language.  Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase made famous by Napoleon Hill that “What a man can Believe, he can Achieve.”  And we are all familiar with the term, “seeing is believing.”  Many clinical psychologists are familiar with the downward Spiral that results from the various forms of Depression.  Perhaps you have even noticed something similar.  But it is important to note that many of the world’s most successful people use this cycle to create truly amazing lives for themselves.

What is less well-known is that the Perception-Belief-Action cycle flows the other direction as well.  That’s right.  Our Beliefs also affect our Perceptions; our Perceptions influence our actions; and our Actions reinforce our Beliefs.  Let’s look at this direction of the cycle in closer detail.

Let’s begin by investigating how our Beliefs affect our Perceptions.  Have you ever witnessed two people watching a political speech, or a news program and come away with two completely different takes.  I have seen this happen so dramatically, that the two people actually “heard” different things.  Surely, there was only one broadcast, so how is this possible?  Simply put, while we may experience a shared event, our Belief Structures serve as filters, causing us to emphasize some details while ignoring, or at least discounting others.  And since we all have a unique combination of beliefs, it is likely that we will have a unique Perception of any given event.  The critical point is that our Beliefs serve as filters, impacting our perceptions.

The next leg of the cycle is how our Perceptions affect our Actions.  While it’s true that our Perceptions affect our Actions only inasmuch as what our Belief Structures say about our observations, we must recognize that many of those Beliefs are held at a very subconscious level.  The more subconscious the Belief is held, the more unconscious the Action becomes.  Indeed, the deeper or more subconscious the Belief is, the shorter time occurs between Perception and Action.  And in most cases the Belief is held buried sufficiently to allow for instantaneous reaction to an observation.  Reflexes serve as a good example.  In these instances, we no longer need to take into account the Belief- we can simply address the Perception to Action link.  Let’s look at an example.  If you were standing on the side of a road, and a car flipped over and started tumbling towards you, you would instinctually run away.  You would not stand there analyzing your beliefs about the possible impact of being struck by a half –ton vehicle.  You would move directly from the Perception to Action.  In training new behavior, we can do the same thing, often times circumventing or ignoring altogether a client’s Belief Structure.

Now Let’s look at Actions shaping our Beliefs. I want to use an example that is familiar among addiction specialists.  We notice that as a drug user continues to abuse drugs, he begins to adopt a belief that his misuse of drugs is inevitable.  It is important to note that it is not the Perception of the drug use that generates this belief, because the Perception is being altered by the drug use.  Rather it is the Action of abusing the drug, or the recollection of the drug experience (and thinking is an Active process) that shapes the Belief of the inevitability of addictive behavior.  This phenomenon is not isolated to drug and alcohol use.  Most of our frequently repeated actions directly influence what we believe about ourselves and others.  “I help others, therefore I am generous.”  “I am smart because I read nightly.”  “I smile to others, therefore I am friendly and outgoing.”  These are all examples of Actions affecting our Beliefs irrespective of the Perception of the generating Action.

Most therapist and councilors focus on the PerceptionàBeliefàAction Cycle as occurring in that order only, and this has dramatic influence over what kinds of therapeutic approaches they take in helping their clients make breakthroughs.  However, once we recognize that the cycle flows the other direction as well (BeliefsàPerceptionsàActionsàBeliefs) we can be open to a whole new line of approaches for facilitating life-changing results.