August 10, 2023

Selective perception

How our brain filters what we perceive through selective perception – and leads us astray

Have you ever bought a new car and suddenly you saw this car as if there were hardly any others? Or did you ever get a new hairstyle or buy new clothes and suddenly you saw people everywhere with a similar hairstyle or similar clothes?

Selective perception occurs in many areas of life and affects how we perceive the world around us. And often, unfortunately, unnecessary conflicts and problems arise due to selective perception.

In this article I would like to shed light on how seriously selective perception influences our lives every day and how you can free yourself.

What is selective perception?

Selective perception refers to our brain’s unconscious tendency to focus on certain information from our environment and ignore others. Since this process is completely unconscious / subconscious, we usually have no conscious control over what we want to or can perceive. It’s a natural and automatic process that helps us focus on what’s important without being overwhelmed by unimportant details. This affects all of our senses, including sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch, and constantly influences our interaction with the world around us.

Why can selective perception make us unhappy?

Selective perception can lead to dissatisfaction or unhappiness and become a self-reinforcing vicious cycle. A downward spiral that turns faster and faster until we realize how it came to this and find the exit.

Focus on the negative

Sometimes our brains can tend to focus on negative experiences or thoughts and overlook positive ones. For example, if we constantly focus on our faults or shortcomings while overlooking our strengths and successes, this can lead to a distorted self-image and unhappiness.

Reinforcement of unrealistic expectations

Selective perception can also contribute to building unrealistic expectations or comparisons with others. If we constantly notice only the positive aspects of other people’s lives, for example through social media, we may begin to compare our own lives unfavorably. This can lead to dissatisfaction and a sense of lack or failure. Once we are in this feeling, our brain seeks confirmation that everyone else is actually better or has more than we do and overlooks the fact that other people also experience downsides.

Ignoring positive opportunities

By seeing only the barriers and obstacles, and our brains subconsciously filtering out positive possibilities or ways to improve, we can feel trapped in an unhappy or unsatisfying situation. Selective perception, focusing only on what is not possible, can inhibit innovation and personal growth. We only see what is not possible and our brain provides us with the confirmation why it is not possible (see also “It is not possible because…” and the magic question).

Impairment of interpersonal relationships

In interpersonal relationships, selective perception can lead us to see only the faults or negative aspects of a partner or friend. Or that fears we have about a relationship cause selective perception to perceive every little thing as a potential “warning sign” to protect us from the pain we fear. This one-sided view can lead to misunderstandings, conflicts and ultimately dissatisfaction in the relationship.

Holding on to unhealthy habits or beliefs

Selective perception can also lead us to hold on to beliefs or habits that are not good for us. When we select information that only supports our current views, we may prevent ourselves from moving forward or making positive changes in our lives.

Why does our brain work selectively in our perception?

Selective perception is both a psychological and a neurological phenomenon, and the two aspects are closely related.

The Neurological Level of Selective Perception

On a neurological level, selective perception takes place in the brain, where billions of neurons are constantly processing information. Since our brain cannot process all incoming stimuli simultaneously, it filters the information to consider only the most important or relevant. This filtering process is controlled by various neuronal mechanisms and is an essential element of the functioning of our brain. It is a protective function so that we are not flooded by all the stimuli to the point of inability to act & make decisions.

Psychological perspective of selective perception

Psychologically, selective perception plays an important role in our behavior and interpretation of the world. It subconsciously influences how we focus our attention, how we interpret information, and how we react to it. Selective perception is shaped and influenced by various factors such as our beliefs, attitudes, interests, and experiences.

Selective perception – An interplay of brain and mind

Selective perception is thus not exclusively a psychological or neurological process, but rather an interplay of both. The neurological basis enables the process, while the psychological factors influence how it manifests in our thinking and behavior. Understanding this complex interaction can help us gain a deeper understanding of how we perceive and respond to the world around us.

Simplified: What is selective perception good for?

We can consider selective perception as our “friend”. It has many advantages that are essential for our daily life and well-being.

Cognitive resource management

Our brain is constantly confronted with a flood of sensory information. Subconscious selective perception acts as a filter, sorting out irrelevant information and allowing only what is essential to pass through for conscious processing. This helps to use cognitive resources efficiently.

Promotion of the ability to make decisions

The ability to make decisions quickly and efficiently is critical to our survival and daily function. Selective perception helps us make decisions by directing focus to relevant information and minimizing distractions.

What role do beliefs play in Selective Perception?

Beliefs play a crucial role in selective perception. They are the deeply held beliefs we have about ourselves, other people, and the world in general. These beliefs influence how we perceive, process, and interpret information.

The topic of selective perception and beliefs is an interesting and complex interaction. Beliefs can also arise as a result of our selective perception. Thus, “extreme” experiences (both positive and negative) that have self-reinforced through selective perception can lead to beliefs.

Information filtering

Beliefs act as filters that determine what information we notice and what not. For example, if we firmly believe in our inability in a particular area, we may tend to perceive only the experiences and information that support that belief and overlook successes or positive feedback.

Reinforcement of prejudices

Our beliefs about certain groups of people or issues can cause us to interpret information or experiences in ways that are consistent with or even reinforce those beliefs. This can contribute to biases and stereotypes, as we may not notice information that contradicts our beliefs.
For example, a prejudice that a certain group is “antisocial” can lead to the fact that 10 people who are friendly or even inconspicuous are not perceived, or at least not to the same extent as the one person who actually behaves bad.

Influencing expectations

The expectations that result from our beliefs influence what we perceive in a given situation. For example, if we believe that an upcoming event will be negative, we may focus more on negative aspects that confirm our forethought. Which in turn shapes our entire experience.

Creation of a Self-fullfilling Prophecy

Beliefs can create a self-fullfilling prophecy where our expectations influence our behavior and perception in a way that creates the expected reality. For example, if we think we will fail in a job interview, we may appear nervous and insecure, which negatively affects the outcome. Every little sign from the counterpart that can be interpreted as confirmation enters our perception as if magnified through a magnifying glass and increases the insecurity, until at some point actually negative signals go out from the counterpart, which accelerates the effect even more, and so on. Vicious circle.

But the whole thing also works if we believe in ourselves.
When we have the self-confidence and know that we can handle a situation.
No matter what problems we encounter along the way, our selective perception shows us every little confirmation when we have made a little bit of progress. Sometimes we do not even fully notice the actual multitude of problems we have encountered along the way.

Impairment of decision making

Because beliefs influence our perception and interpretation of information, they can also influence our decision making. We may miss important alternatives or perspectives that are inconsistent with our beliefs through our selective perceptions, and thus make suboptimal decisions.

Is it possible to switch off / get rid of selective perception?

Selective perception is a natural unconscious subconscious process. It’s not easy to “turn it off,” but through mindfulness and conscious effort, you can become more aware of the tendency and try to get a more balanced view of your surroundings.

In addition, you can also consciously use and direct selective perception for yourself, as long as you were aware beforehand through mindfulness that you are not seeing the whole picture right now.

How can you change selective perception?

1. mindfulness and meditation

Mindfulness and meditation are powerful tools for raising our awareness of our thoughts and feelings. Through regular mindfulness meditation and mindfulness exercises, we can learn to better observe our thoughts and perceptions without making judgments. In this way, we become more aware of our selective perceptual tendencies and can then change them in the second step.

2. self-reflection and self-observation

Self-observation and reflection on our thoughts and reactions can help us identify patterns and understand how selective perception influences our thinking. By recognizing these patterns, we can make conscious choices to change our perceptions.

3. education and information about selective perception

Understanding the mechanisms of selective perception through education and information can also help to gain control over it. By understanding how and why it occurs, we can better respond to it and steer it in positive directions.

4. zen mind / beginner’s mind – confrontation with different perspectives.

Consciously seeking and exploring different perspectives, especially those that contradict our own beliefs, can help break through selective perception. It encourages critical thinking and allows us to go beyond our own preconceptions.

5. establishment of positive beliefs

Our beliefs strongly influence how we perceive the world. By establishing and cultivating positive beliefs, we can direct our perceptions in a positive and supportive direction.

How we can use selective perception for ourselves

By consciously focusing on positive aspects, one can, for example, increase one’s own well-being or achieve certain goals.

For example, keeping a gratitude journal or a success diary can change your perspective so that over time the focus moves from your weaknesses and “beating yourself up” to self-confidence, satisfaction with yourself and balance, and with selective perception it becomes a little easier each day to see these things automatically and let the mistakes become less and less important.

You can even make subconscious selective perception work, basicly by asking the right questions. See also, for example, “You can’t do that because…” and the magic question

However, questions such as “Are there any counterexamples to my previous assumption?” as often asked when working with beliefs, can also steer selective perception in a different direction.


Selective perception is a complex and fascinating phenomenon that is deeply rooted in our human experience. It offers indispensable advantages that help us cope with the complexity of the world.

At the same time, it carries risks and potential pitfalls, especially if we are not consciously aware of its implications. Beliefs that influence our selective perception can distort our view of the world and limit our ability to think and feel objectively.

Selective perception is not set in stone; it can be changed and controlled. Through mindfulness, reflection, education, and deliberate practice, everyone can harness the power of their awareness to live a more conscious and fulfilling life. It’s an ongoing process, but one that offers deep insights into ourselves and our world, and helps us grow both personally and professionally. It is a key to controlling our perceptual faculty, allowing us to see the world from new perspectives.

In a world where selective perception can both support and undermine, it is critical to develop a balanced and reflective understanding of how it affects our happiness. Further exploration of this topic can pave the way to a more satisfying and conscious life by helping us maximize the benefits and minimize the drawbacks.

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