Perception Versus Reality


Many will say that our perception is our reality but is that enough?

There are a lot of accidents that one of the major contributing factors was lack of perception of what was actually going on. As a pilot or any role of responsibility it is important to be aware of what our limitations are when it comes to understanding the world.


Perception: Psychology. A single unified awareness derived from sensory processes while a stimulus is present3.

Reality: the state of things as they are or appear to be, rather than as one might wish them to be4.

In other words, perception is defined what we are seeing and reality is defined as what is happening. How well our perception matches that of reality is often referred to as situational awareness.

How it works:

The eyes are the best tool to understanding the world around us. They allow a lot of information to pass through into the brain to be processed. However, the other senses are needed to get a true picture. Though the eyes can give a lot, without the others we may miss what is said through sound, for example traffic information from ATC, smell, balance, touch or taste. Some of these senses are helpful some are not.

Cognitivism. (Image embedded from Innovative Learning August 2011)

This diagram shows what happens between what comes in and what we understand. The picture of the globe can be called the reality, while our perception lies within our short and long term memory. However, at each step there can be a loss because the limitations of our bodies but also our understanding.


How well we understand the world is inside our head and what we think we see, hear and feel. The information though passes through a few filters before we even begin to process that information.

Senses: These are eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin. Each of them gives different information and each has their limits. These can vary day to day and some deteriorate quicker than others in different people. For example, Occupational Hearing Loss refers to people who have lost some ability to hear because of the environment they work in. In terms of daily variation an example would be the IMSAFE check list. This check list goes through daily variation of how a pilot is feeling so that he/she can understand how well he/she might perceive the world during the flight he/she is about to commence. The other limitation is the range that the senses can register. For example our eyes can only see visible light, the colours of the rainbow. They cannot see infra-red or ultra-violet.
Filters: Once the information has passed through the senses it is then filtered in order to be dealt with. For example, when someone looks out to the distance their eyes can only focus on one thing at any given moment. Though they think they are seeing everything, only a small amount of information is being processed. If the environment remains unchanged, then over time the person may be able to perceive everything that is going on. Unfortunately, the environment is ever changing and we are always going to miss something.
Time: Things can happen very quickly or very slowly, sometimes past what our senses can register. This means that if something happens too quickly we might miss it.

Once we have the information that has passed through the numerous stages above, we then need to start processing the information. The first problem then is that everything that is happening actually has a lag because this processing takes time. However, generally this is not a problem because the time frames we deal with are very minimal.

To process the information our brain compares the information that is coming in with previous experiences and then categorises it. It then also associates a feeling or emotion which then proceeds into action or inaction. For example during a flight, the pilot checks the dials and reads that they are normal. This then processes as an “ok” situation and an emotion of calm which then proceeds to continue what he/she was doing. The limitation here can be that the person has not been in the situation before and cannot categorise it or categorises it incorrectly and proceeds with incorrect action. Some cases can be referred to as shock. This limitation can be due to inexperience or to a lack of training.

The other issues can come straight from the information that comes in. If the information is conflicting the brain subconsciously chooses which one to believe and proceed to take action based on that decision. We can however, train ourselves to recognise this and then choose to ignore that sense and proceed with a different action. This can lead to problems like vertigo.

Other situation that can arise is the problem of core believes and attitudes. Both of these can skew the information in order to fit what we want to see. If this happens it can lead to incorrect decision being made which can be fatal. However, some of these believes can be used to a designers advantage1.


By understanding how we perceive the world and the differences between reality and our perception of it we can and have come up with ways in order to help highlight dangerous situations.

The first way is to design procedures or policies to ensure that each flight that we commence is when the pilot is at his best or understands what he/she is feeling that the time. An example would be the IMSAFE check list.

Another way, often referred to as cognitive ergonomics, is to design equipment or computers that are based around the human and their limitation. An example of this would be a red light to indicate danger, a green light to indicate normal, and orange to indicate warning. This is because in the environment these colours are used in our day to day lives to indicate such things for example traffic lights.


The way we view the world is our own. However, sometimes this is not enough. There are times in our jobs that we must try to go past our limitation and view the environment for what it is. In order to help that we must try and evolve or change are environment to try and better our situational awareness and make sure our perception of reality is correct.

1. (n.d.) Module 1: Information Processing. Retrieved from
3. (nd) Perception. Retrieved from
4. (nd) Reality. Retrieved from

Want to know more?

Situational Awareness

Cognitive Perspective of Human Performance

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