Charlie Alfred’s Weblog

Perception is Everything

In a previous post we discussed the topics of benefits, constraints, and uncertainties.  We also discussed the difference between viewing these things objectively versus subjectively.  On the surface, this change in perception seems black and white, but like most polar opposites, the change is full of shades of gray.  In fact, we can leverage this reference to polar, and think about perception using polar coordinates. Unlike Cartesian coordinates which measure X and Y distances from an origin, polar coordinates use the center of a circle as their origin, and locate points using angle of rotation (A) and radial distance from the center (R).  For perception, we can make simple use of polar coordinates in the following way:

Objective Perspective              Origin point – located at the center (0,0)

Subjective Viewpoint              Angle of rotation – “slant” the observer has on an observation

Subjective Separation            Emotional distance between the observer and the observation

                                                                       Low = more objectivity, High = more subjectivity

Let’s consider a couple of simple examples related to how risk is perceived to see how this matters:
Childhood Broken Bones


A common activity among young children climb on swing sets, swing as high as they can, then jump off when the swing is at its apex. It can be a rush for a 9 year old to jump from about twice their height, with forward momentum.


Now consider the following scenario (which, coincidentally happened to my son two years ago on Halloween afternoon). He jumped from the swing in his back yard, and landed awkwardly on his right hand, breaking his arm above the wrist. Excruciating pain, followed by eight hours in the Emergency Room, and loss of “trick or treating”, made the decision to jump seem dubious at best. Six weeks in a cast, with the requisite sleeping difficulties, made the decision to jump a first class bad idea (in retrospect).

Subjective Separation can be illustrated by considering this accident from the perspective of the following people:

o   Strong Connection     A younger sibling of the child who broke his arm

o   Moderately Strong     A close friend the child who broke his arm

o   Remote Connection   A child in a different grade at the same elementary school

o   Distant Connection    A pen pal in another state

Subjective Viewpoint can be illustrated by considering this accident from these perspectives:

o   Thrill Seeker                Big deal, I’ve already broken 5 bones in 3 accidents The  consequences aren’t that likely and the thrill justifies them.

o   Sympathizer                 The consequences are awful. I really wish it had never happened

o   Pragmatic                      Sometimes bad things happen when you take chances.

Combining the Separation and Viewpoint dimensions can theoretically provide 12 different points on the polar coordinate map.

Combinations of Separation and Viewpoint levels are very likely to have different perceptions of the same situation. A Sympathizer who is a Strong Connection to the child is likely to take this situation to heart, and use the lessons to make future decisions. On the other hand, a Sympathizer who is Remote Connection is not likely to be affected as deeply. A Pragmatic who is a Strong Connection is likely to take this situation with a grain of salt. This person’s long term decision making is not likely to be moved a great deal.

Global Warming TV Commercial

Global Warming has been a hotly-debated topic for many years. We’ll focus on one small aspect: a TV commercial which has aired recently.



In this commercial a grim-faced middle-aged man is standing on a railroad track with an oncoming train approaching. The man says,

“Some say irreversible consequences are 30 years away. Thirty years?  That won’t affect me!”.

He steps away to reveal a child behind him, directly in the path of the train. The camera zooms into her face to reveal deep concern.  Then the message “There’s still time” is shown on the screen.

Environmental Defense, a non-profit organization and co-sponsors of this ad, assert:

Results from coupled ocean-atmosphere climate models driven by a variety of GHG emission scenarios indicate that the Earth will have warmed by 2 degrees Celsius relative to the ‘pre-industrial’ era (and by 1.3 degrees Celsius relative to the present) sometime between 2026 and 2060.

and on a related page:

The most respected scientific organizations have stated unequivocally that global warming is happening, and people are causing it by burning fossil fuels and cutting down forests…  The only debate in the science community about global warming is about how much and how fast warming will continue as a result of heat-trapping emissions.

Like my son jumping off the swing, many adults in our generation perceive Global Warming as some sort of false alarm or “crying wolf.” It’s not something that cracks the daily top-10 in their issues to worry about. The safety of ones job, the price of gasoline, the cost of a college education, and whether termites might be infesting the house are bigger sources of concern.

The intent of this ad is clearly to displace apathy about the potential dangers of global warming with concern about the welfare of our children.

This is an interesting indirect tactic to address a perception issue. If the arguments about long term consequences aren’t getting attention, then tug hard on a subjective value expectation that will garner attention – our children! Is this fair game. I think it is. Whatever the risk of Global Warming really is, there’s little doubt that it’s consequences are more severe for our children and grandchildren than it is for us.

So why not bring them into the value equation? At the end of the day, people will act if:

a) they pay enough attention to the potential problem to investigate it, and

b) after their analysis, they conclude that it is a risk worth worrying about

Not everyone agrees, however. Victoria Bekiempis writes in the dePlume daily:

“By bringing wide-eyed, healthful children into the global warming debate, the producers of the commercial most likely wanted to elicit catharsis. Hence, the actual issues of science, politics, and economics are transgressed, leaving us with a paltry emotional substitute. Or, in other words, the producers make an appeal to pity. Simply, global warming is a real problem because it makes us feel badly, and feeling badly can’t be good, that’s why we should stop it. Moreover, the commercial referred to as “train” wages both an appeal to pity and a slippery slope argument.

That is, the commercial’s position, that global warming will lead to the gruesome death of children, is justification enough for us to act to stop global warming.”

In summary, perception drives many decisions, regardless of how much we all believe we are objective, dispassionate, and rational. People and groups have been observed to setup detailed decision matrices, only to tinker with the weights after their preferred solution didn’t come out as #1.  Perception is a tricky enough issue when dealing with the subjective value of a benefit. It gets hazier when considering the impact of a constraint (can I beat the yellow light?), and even hazier when assessing risk.  In spite of this, the critical thing is to always be aware of the role of perception in decision making – especially when another person’s perception might not match your own.

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