Although we often neglect, for various reasons, to use our power of choice we are also often coerced into thinking we are making a choice, when in fact we are merely reacting in a preconditioned way, which is perhaps not always in our own best interests. To make a choice truly one must have an understanding of what one's own perception is of the choice at hand.
Our cultures, upbringing, environments, circumstances and life experiences all impact on our perceptions, prejudices and attitudes, which come to play in our decision making process. The perception we have of something in fact far outweighs its reality when coming to a decision, for in our minds; the perception is the reality. In other words, what you think to be true (even if it's not and you have been misled) is the truth in your mind and your decisions will be based on that. This is the fundamental reason why we need to question our truths and be as clear headed and objective as possible when making key decisions in our lives and deciding the difference between right and wrong.
The power of manipulating our personal belief systems has long been used as a motivator, as can be seen in the 1918 booklet “The stuff that wins wars” by Dr Luther H Gulick, which was handed out to the US marine corps during the first world war. He writes “A man who runs the mile (footrace) seconds slower than his opponent will win just by crowding and discouraging the other fellow till he believes he is beaten. When he believes he is beaten, he is beaten. A man who believes he is beaten can no longer do his best, no matter how hard he tries.” He goes on to write “An army that believes that it is in the wrong will be beaten by the army that believes it is in the right”.
Notice the emphasis in both cases is belief. It matters little what the reality is. It's win at whatever price and believe you are right. One can argue that in war nobody wins and nobody is right, although that's just my perception of it, but then why do people so often use the same tactics in life? Are we to be lulled into the perception that he who wins is right?
One of the key drivers that influences our perceptions in life are our expectations of life. We expect certain things from our families, our friends, our leaders, our teachers, our churches, our enemies and so forth. We also have certain expectations of marriage, work and play and basically every aspect of our lives. The societies in which we live have contributed to these expectations and in turn they impact heavily on our perspectives. As these realities are often tainted to suite other agendas, they do not always live up to the expectations instilled in us.
Whether we are conscious of it or not, our feelings and the consequences of those feelings follow from the assumptions we have of how our lives should unfold. It can be a very daunting experience when you discover your perception of something was wrong and thereby the choices you made were in fact also wrong. It is also wise to realise that not everybody shares the same perspectives. People can see the exact same thing in very different ways.
To illustrate the power of perception on different cultural groups, an experiment was done with a group of seven to nine year olds at a preschool in the US. Half the children were Anglo American and the other half were Asian American, who spoke the language of their parents at home. The children were divided equally into three groups. The first group was given six different colour pens and six word puzzles. They were told they could choose any puzzle and use any colour to complete them. The second group were also given all the pens and puzzles but told which ones they must do by their teacher.
The third group was given all the pens and puzzles and told that their mothers had been consulted and had selected which puzzles they must do and which colours they must use. In reality the children in the second and third groups were given the exact same puzzle and colours to do, which the children in the second group had selected.
The results were as follows; The Anglo American children that were able to make their own choices completed 2½ times more puzzles than those that thought their mothers had made the selection for them and 4½ times more than those children that thought their teacher had made the selections for them. In comparison the Asian American children, who performed the best, were those that thought their mothers had selected their materials, completing 30% more than those that had the free choice and twice as many as those that thought their teacher had made the selection.
Many of the Anglo American children felt a little embarrassed (at the perception) that their mothers had been consulted in the process, while the Asian American children wanted their parents to know that they had fulfilled their wishes. The results also illustrate the difference in cultures whereby generally the westerner is raised in the spirit of individualism and independent identity where the Asian group falls more under the collectivism society where the parents play a more intricate part in determining the children's identity and perspectives. An interesting fact is that both cultural groups reacted equally in their performances when they thought their selection was made by a third party in the guise of the teacher. This in turn shows a move towards a more individualist society even by cultural groupings previously disposed to strict collectivism, obviously influenced by the culture they are now residing in.
There are those that are staunch supporters of keeping things the way they have always been and will continue to promote the benefits of a collectivism society, but there is a rise and spread of individualism that in turn equates to the freedom and discovery of our personal identities. “Who am I?” has long been the question and while many try to push the answer of conformity to a culture or grouping, this no longer satisfies all the questions being asked. At the heart of the individualist societies we are presented with the idea that who you are in terms of race, religion, nationality does not fully determine who you are as a person. These things impact on our perceptions, but we are more than that and, like actors, we can choose to remain typecast in a certain role, as we live out our lives or we can choose to evaluate our perceptions and make conscious decisions to be who we want to be.
There is a perception that the “American Dream” is that anybody can get rich and make money off little or no effort and there are those who believe it is now the “South African” dream. That is a wrong perception. The term “American Dream” was coined by the historian James Truslow Adams in 1931 when he wrote: “The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement… (A) dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position”.
In other words, a place where if you have skills, ability and ambition you can attain success no matter where you come from or who you are and that in general the standard of living should be better for all. This can be the South African dream if we choose it to be. There's never a right time or a right place but there's always the right choices.
As illustrated in my book “Rose of Soweto” The Dingaan Thobela story, it matters little where you come from or what circumstances you are born into. If you remain true and have character, make the right choices and check your perceptions, you can make a success of your life and attain your highest aspirations. If you perceive the world around you to be full of obstacles, then that's your reality. If you perceive the world around you to be full of choices and challenges that you can rise above, then that's your reality. It's your choice and your perception. asa
Deon Potgieter is an Internationally renowned author, television producer and director with 20 years' experience. He is the author of the book “Rose of Soweto” and the SAFTA 2010 winning sitcome “Family Bonds”.