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What I Perceive is What I Believe is How I Behave: why most behavior change initiatives fall short

Updated: Feb 23, 2022

On January 22, 2022, the revered Vietnamese born Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh passed away. Often referred to as the “father of mindfulness”, he stressed the importance of removing wrong perceptions of ourselves and others. Why is perception so critical to human survival and well-being?

Two pathways of the mind

The primary job of the human mind is to detect threats to our survival and keep us safe. It processes 11 million bits of information per second scanning the environment every 1/5 of a second for any threatening activity, with social threats equal to physical threats. The lightening quick processing of this primary pathway is non-conscious, automatic, reactive, emotional, and always running, consuming about 95% of the mind’s activity.

This amazing speed is achieved through pattern recognition. The mind uses pattern mapping to create a mental model of how the world works so that it can instantly recognize potential threats. It makes assumptions, jumps to conclusions, and creates simple explanations for complex events so that we can act quickly and move on to the next threat. This mental model acts as a perceptual filter determining what you notice, pay attention to and value as important. Therefore, what we perceive is what we already believe based on the model or program that is operating.

The thinking pathway of the mind by comparison processes only about 40 bits of information per second. It is conscious, slow, deliberate, infrequent, logical, and energy intensive. Basically, we are on autopilot most of the time without realizing it. We humans prefer to think of ourselves as largely rational beings making logical decisions, but neuroscience says otherwise.

How does culture impact perception?

As social beings, our survival also depends on sticking together by forming communities. Humans are born to culture the way fish are born to water. According to renown cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz, “there is no such thing as human nature independent of culture”. Culture provides a sense of safety, certainty and order to the messiness and perceived danger of reality.

Culture is defined as shared beliefs and assumptions that guide group behavior, establishing norms that determine acceptable from unacceptable behavior. We grossly underestimate the degree to which culture influences personal beliefs and behaviors. It acts like an invisible force field constraining expressions of individuality to certain patterns of behavior.

Individual perception is heavily influenced by the cultural water in which we happen to be swimming. We all hold limiting beliefs and assumptions about ourselves and about others that come from cultural conditioning, starting at a very young age. We tell ourselves stories about who and how we’re supposed to be as though it is set in stone. “That’s just how I am. It’s the way my brain is wired.”

The biggest mistake that leaders make in implementing major culture and behavior change initiatives is an over-emphasis on external action and tangible programs, ignoring inner intangible aspects. It is essential to accept the fact that inner reality drives external behaviors.

The good news is that human beings are in a constant state of becoming, not restricted to some fixed level of maturity. Expanding what the mind can see opens the field of possibility in ways we never could have imagined.

Adapt to survive

Over time deeply entrenched cultural beliefs blind us to the ever-changing world around us. The dominant cultural paradigm loses its effectiveness in dealing with the challenges we face. What has been successful in the past now becomes an invisible barrier to change by stalling our capacity to deal creatively with current life conditions.

Today’s individual achievement-oriented culture conditions us to continually assess how we stack up against the competition. “What are my weaknesses”? “Am I good enough?” “What do I need to fix?” People’s perception of self and others is geared towards outward facing competence, status and image fueling inner anxiety, self-doubt, and feelings of inadequacy.

An excellent example of the power of changing perceptions comes from Trabian Shorters, tech entrepreneur, bestselling author, and Founder of BMe Community. Trabian’s approach intentionally shifts perceptual orientation away from “deficit-framing” and toward “asset-framing®. A deficit-framing lens defines people based on problems and deficiencies. It stigmatizes people by categorizing them, labeling, them, and sorting them into higher and lower positions based on perceived value. We use language such as high potential and promising for some people and at risk, unskilled, and marginalized for others.

Humans have become overly dependent on competition as the primary driver for change and success. Yes, competition has fueled breakthrough achievements in support of human well-being and prosperity, but today’s challenges require a different response. Reframing how we see ourselves and how we see others is an essential step.

Tilting the world towards love

The accepted story for how we survive and thrive as human beings must change.

Instead of survival of the fittest and winner-take-all, what if we value and uplift everyone?

Asset-framing®, according to Trabian anchors our perceptions in people’s aspirations and potential rather than their challenges? If we start from a place of possibility, inherent value and self-worth, then challenges, pain, and despair are just part of the process not permanent personal traits. I am not my worst behavior. I am not my mistakes. I am not my fears and doubts. Nor is anyone.

Self-improvement and personal responsibility are still essential, but these actions alone are insufficient. Individual development must occur within the context of a cultural shift toward recognition of and alignment with our own and everyone’s divine nature.

Thich Nhat Hanh spoke of “seeing all living beings through the eyes of compassion”, an important teaching from the Lotus Sutra. Changing the lens through which we perceive the world changes everything.

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