Selective Perception and Your Priorities

Woman looking down the road

When you’re trying to plan your work and achieve productivity, it’s important to understand your priorities. If you’re not finding time to work on what is most important to you, then what’s all this planning for? Especially when it comes to prioritizing items within a certain context—the work you do at the office, for example—it’s essential to know what the most important areas of focus are.

However, you may have chosen your priorities, poured effort and time and planning into them, and found only underwhelming results. Your benchmarks may have been left unmet, your goals unrealized. One possible explanation may be that you haven’t given it enough time, or that your original goals were unrealistic. Another possibility is that you had selective perception coloring your judgment when you chose your priorities.

Selective Perception

Selective perception describes the human tendency to only notice certain things (or types of things). It’s actually a good survival trait: if you actually took the time to notice everything in the world, you’d starve while trying to cross your lawn to get home for dinner because you’d never finish noticing all the blades of grass. Selective perception also helps us recognize patterns of cause and effect. Overall, it’s a pretty good thing to have functioning in your brain.

However, too much of a good thing is still a bad thing, and there are times when selective perception can hurt you. For example, one study* asked 23 business executives to read a report that described the inner workings of a steel company. They were then asked to write down the most important problem the steel company faced. In the study, if the executive had a background in sales, 83% of the time he or she would say sales was the steel company’s biggest problem; if the executive wasn’t in sales, he or she only chose sales as the top priority 29% of the time. The executives tended to see issues they were familiar with in the study.

Why is that bad? If you have experience with a certain type of problem, you also have the experience to solve that problem, so it’s a good one to focus on, right? Not necessarily. It’s only a good thing if the problem you choose to focus on is actually an important problem. In the case of choosing your top priority, it’s important to make sure your selective perception isn’t hiding the most important problem you face.

Example & Application

For example, say you’re trying to lose weight. When you were younger you were on the track team, and you ran your guts out every day. Now that you’re trying to lose weight, you’ve decided the top priority inside that particular goal is exercise. So you find time to run every single day, without fail, because it’s your top priority. This is not a bad thing.

Unless your weight problem is not cause by inactivity, but rather by an unhealthy diet. If you’ve put all your focus toward exercising and haven’t put one thought into what you’re eating, you may find yourself at a plateau on your way toward your weight loss goal because you’re not getting the right nutrition to complement your running. In this case, you would need to shift your priorities to include changing your diet.

It can be extremely difficult to identify your own selective perception. So if you find yourself in a rut you can’t understand, try explaining your situation to an outsider who doesn’t look at things the same way you do. Getting a second (or third) opinion can help you determine whether your difficulties are the result of self-inflicted blindness and set you on the path toward better progress.

*The described study is cited in Organizational Behavior, p. 143.

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