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Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

La trahison des images (The treachery of images) by Magritte, 1929

This famous painting from Magritte invites us to challenge what we consider to be the reality, in a very simple, yet effective and memorable way. But how often do we actually stop to think about what we consider the reality, and the truth to be? How much of an effect has this got on the way we approach life in general? I will argue that this is a much more down to earth topic with tangible implications than it may seem at first.

I personally have been reflecting on this every now and then over the past few years, mostly during my commuting time (when there was such a thing..), and only ever in my own head, not daring to bring up such deep philosophical questions with colleagues and friends. This is until I got an opportunity through my recent studies to learn and read about such questions, and was actively encouraged to reflect and share my own thoughts about them - what a revelation!

In the context of my studies in organisational psychology, this came about in the way that knowledge is considered, which has an impact on how knowledge is developed, and therefore how research is being conducted. In simple terms, glossing over the many intricacies and subtleties at play (apologies to any academic readers!), there are two main ways to consider this. The first one, and probably currently still more "mainstream", is looking to map and establish existing links and connections between phenomena, and define generalisable theories, tested and validated mostly quantitatively, through surveys and experiments. This is for example how the connection between personality traits and behaviour at work is being envisaged, and therefore what most psychometric testing is based upon. It is all about finding how certain phenomena can reliably predict specific outcomes. It does assume a view of reality whereby those phenomena, albeit complex, can be fixed, identified and mapped to establish those reliable predictions. Beyond psychology, this also seems to be the way we tend to consider the reality of the world quite often, by making generalised statements, by considering that action A will lead to consequence B, and that most facts, as long as they come from what we consider to be reliable sources, are facts we accept, and perpetuate.

The second way to consider knowledge and reality however, is a view that these things cannot be fixed and mapped systematically. It is an assumption that the reality of the world is only ever produced through our own thoughts or thinking processes. That reality only ever exists in the eye of the beholder, and that the individuality of the way each of us experience the world, as well as the complex web of external factors influencing it, such as social pressures, wider context, or even our own past history, builds a picture that makes every individual and every situation unique. This approach is called social constructionism, and puts the emphasis not so much on finding generalisable and predictable phenomena, but on understanding individual experiences, and how people construct those, typically through the way they talk about about them, or express themselves in various ways.

Needless to say, this second approach is the one I had been reflecting on for a while, without knowing what it was called, its foundations, or how much had already been written about it. And as I progress through my studies, it remains my favoured way of approaching specific topics. Beyond studies and research however, I have also found it to be a very helpful way to approach many things in life, and here are a few examples:

  • Developing empathy and inclusion: an appreciation that we all construct our own version of reality, which we all act upon, and is influenced by our own stories and background helps a lot in developing empathy for others, hold judgment on others' actions, and take a moment to appreciate that there is a lot more coming into it than what is visible to all, and that one action may result from a collection of other circumstances. Personally, it has helped me to react to others' behaviours by seeking to understand rather than judge.

  • Personal wellbeing and stress: this takes the same principles, and turns them back towards yourself. We are also quick to judge ourselves, our own feelings and behaviours based on a perception of what "the norm" should be, or what standard behaviours and reactions should be, and how we might deviate from those. The exact same mantra of understanding rather than judging should apply to ourselves. There are always a set of reasons, circumstances, and individual history which will bring us to react in certain ways and adopt certain behaviours. Considering these rather than focusing on how we feel we should have acted helps us be kinder to ourselves, and can also help us think more about the root causes of our feelings, and what we might be able to do about them.

  • Keeping a healthy distance with things in general: without letting this go too far, it also helps to remember that all of us build our own version of reality when facing particular challenges. We are placing our own sense of importance on other people, or objects, or achievements, and often these are being influenced by things I have mentioned before such as social pressures and past experiences. Taking a moment to recognise this in challenging times can also help us appreciate that we also have the faculty to change this, and adopt a different sense of perspective. It isn't about living a carefree life, but trying not to let certain things take more importance than they should, or for the wrong reasons.

Finally, this isn't either about claiming that, out of the two approaches to knowledge and reality that I mentioned, one is "better" than the other. There too it is about appreciating a plurality of views and perspectives, what all of them may have to bring when thinking about a topic, to help you build your own view of the world. Ultimately, only you are in a position to determine for yourself what you consider to be a fact - and while doing so, remain curious, respectful and understanding of the richness of experiences and perspectives out there.

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