Immediately after a concert I gave a few years ago, a pianist introduced himself and said he’d be interested in being presented at the same venue in his own concert. He mentioned some difficult repertoire he was working on at the time and said he wanted to tour with a solo piano program. I concluded he must be very good, considering the level of music he was working on and the belief he clearly had in himself, not to mention a very likeable, down-to-Earth personality. I suggested we both play repertoire for each other once in a while to get each others’ coaching advice, and he seemed just as excited as I was to have a fellow colleague to bounce musical ideas off of.
I later agreed to record his playing to help him with a promotional CD, still not having heard him play. As I listening to his playing a few days before the recording session, I was disappointed to see fingerings that even my advanced students wouldn’t use if they learned the same piece on their own, such as pinky-pinky-pinky when he appeared to “run out of fingers.” I couldn’t back out of the recording session since I already gave him my word. In the recording session, I noticed many other fundamentals missing from his playing. So, I didn’t follow up to coach each other.
In the weeks and months following, I struggled with some vague feelings of being violated, and these feelings repeated themselves every time I talked to him. I felt almost like I was being approached with a scam. I couldn’t buy into the scam, but I couldn’t tell the scam artist what I thought either. Worse, I wasn’t completely sure if I could get upset with him. Maybe it wasn’t his fault that he couldn’t see certain truths about himself? Still, having to tactfully squirm my way around conversations with him was a nameless phenomenon that really bothered me. I was experiencing an unreasonable choice: either be friendly by playing along with something that simply wasn’t true, or come across as incredibly rude by being truthful. I felt forced to either give up my integrity or give up my civility.
When someone knowingly or unknowingly imposes this unfair choice onto others because of the false way they perceive themselves, I call this perception imposition.
Update on 10/12/12: there is new research relating to perception imposition, studying the detrimental effects of when politeness takes priority over honesty in high-stakes situations – see Perils of Polite Misunderstandings (Association for Psychological Science).
To demonstrate this perception scenario in more general terms, consider the venn diagram on the right. What follows is a list of what each numbered area means:
- The part of your true self that both you and others see. No perception imposition (PI).
- The things you and those you know believe about you that aren’t true. No PI.
- The part of your true self that you see but others don’t. Others believe PI occurs even though it does not.
- The part of your true self that others see but you don’t. PI occurs.
- The things others wrongly believe about you which you know to be false. Others believe PI occurs even though it does not.
- Things you wrongly believe about yourself that others know are false. PI occurs.
- The part of your true self that neither you nor others see. No PI.
We would all love for all three circles to be exactly aligned, which would mean area #1 would consume and eradicate all other areas.
Note that opposite areas produce the same results: areas 4 and 6 both produce PI, areas 3 and 5 both produce unfair PI, and areas 2 and 7 produce no PI. Going along concordantly with this:
- The farther apart the blue circle is from the others, the greater the PI (areas 6 and 4 grow).
- The farther apart the green circle is from the others, the greater the unfair PI. It seems fairly obvious to me that we tend to choose our friends based on how close their green circle is to our own, regardless of how close the green circle is to the red circle.
- As the red circle distances itself from the other two circles, many things happen, but they all cancel each other out. Areas 3 and 4 get smaller, but areas 5 and 6 get bigger. Areas 2 and 7 get bigger, but that’s still no PI. What really happens in the case that #7 is far away from the others is that serious deception is taking place: you are a completely different person than you and others think you are, which probably means you are insane.
I should note that PI only occurs when the gap between our self-perception and how others perceive us errs in favor of ourselves. In other words, “the truth hurts.” Let’s take area 6 as an example (things you wrongly believe about yourself to be true that others know are false):
- If I call myself a complete moron just because of one small mistake I make, other people will feel no PI by my claim since I am erring on the side of self deprecation. They are free to point out the truth that everyone makes small mistakes, or they are free to create some laughs by agreeing that I’m a moron because I made a small mistake. The truth doesn’t hurt.
- If I rest my ego upon the false belief that I’m every bit the pianist that Evgeny Kissin is, I’m putting others in a position where they cannot win my favor unless they play along with me (PI takes place). The truth hurts.
As another example (this time taking area 4: the part of your true self that others see but you don’t):
- If someone else believes that I’m a genius and I’ve never even fathomed the possibility, my ignorance in this matter does not cause PI. The truth doesn’t hurt.
- If someone else knows that I actually am a moron and I’m not aware, PI takes place. The truth hurts.
It seems area 4 offenses are more forgivable than area 6 offenses since area 4 seems more like ignorance, while area 6 seems more like self-deception. The trouble is, sometimes they seem like the same thing depending on how you frame it. For example, if someone rightfully knows that I’m a moron and I disagree with this belief, this situation would be located in area #4. But we could also say that I positively believe that I am not a moron while others disagree with this belief, which now places the exact same situation in area #6. That is why it is often difficult to discern how “upset” we should get when we experience this imposition from others. Are they imposing in a way that is innocent (due to childlike ignorance or even mental illness), or is their imposition more because of the self-deception that results from extreme arrogance, stubbornness, insecurity and/or fear?
Regardless, this diagram really gives us an interesting tool to use in thinking about the relationships we have with others and with ourselves (including the diagram right here again so you don’t have to scroll):
- Our sworn enemy (or just a mentally deranged person we should stay away from) would have a green circle that isn’t even touching the blue and red circles. Our soul mate’s green circle, on the other hand, would exist exactly half-way between the blue and red circles (areas 3 and 5 disappear: no unfair PI ever takes place).
- If we see a diagram with the red circle not touching the other two circles, then we have ourselves either a very good friend or a very bad friend (in either case, a very brainwashed friend), and we also have serious problems ourselves. If the red circle is exactly half-way between the other two, then area 1 consumes area 2 (we know ourselves better and display it well to others) and area 7 disappears (no part of ourselves is hidden from view – we are transparent).
- If the blue circle is detached from the other two, then chances are we are going to be that “sworn enemy/mentally deranged” person described in the first bullet point to almost everyone we meet. We will have no friends, and we’ll probably end up shooting colleagues after being denied tenure at a university.
One final note about area #7: some might call it the “God area” – the area that only God knows.
(c) 2009 Read Twedt