Mental Help Net
Family & Relationship Issues
Basic InformationMore InformationLatest NewsQuestions and AnswersBlog EntriesVideosLinksBook Reviews
Therapist Search
Find a Therapist:
 (USA/CAN only)

Use our Advanced Search to locate a therapist outside of North America.

Related Topics

Life Issues
Elder Care
Child Care

Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
Dr. Schwartz's Weblog

Points of View

Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Dec 13th 2006

Why Do We See Events So Differently?
Memory, Sensation, and Perception


It happens all the time: two people witness the same event but remember things very differently. As a boy, I remember my grandparents getting into repeated debates about the history of some event from the past. My grandfather was certain about who was at the event as well as what was said. My grandmother was equally certain that he was incorrect and fought insistently that her version was what had happened. Which version was ever really the truth? Is there ever an ultimate truth, even when events are recorded

Most of us witnessed the video recordings of Osama bin Laden discussing his carrying out the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Yet, Arab viewers in Middle Eastern nations reported with certainty that the tapes of Bin Laden were counterfeits, created by the FBI for American propaganda purposes. Americans were, and are, equally certain that the tapes were true, accurate, and an admission of guilt on Bin Laden's part. Which is the truth? Is there an ultimate truth?

Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religious leaders insist on the reality of God. Yet, an American scientist recently wrote a book in which he asserts that the notion of God is a fabrication of the human imagination and has no scientific reality behind it. Which is the truth? Is there an ultimate truth?

There was a time when, in the justice system, eye witness testimony about a crime was inviolate. The fact that one or more people witnessed and reported a crime seemed to condemn the accused to either a prison term or the death penalty, depending on the severity of the crime. Now, the system is not so certain about the credibility of eye witness testimony because inaccuracies and inconsistencies are often found. Isn't truth and reality unquestionable? If people witnessed a crime, did they not all see the same thing?

Many years ago, the Japanese produced a brilliant movie called Roshaman. The movie was based on a famous tale based on Japanese culture and thinking. In the story, a murder is committed. A trial is held and eye witness testimony is given. The testimony is given by the wife of the victim, his accused murderer, and the spirit of the deceased himself is called to the trial to provide his version of what took place. What is fascinating about the tale is that each witness, including the deceased, gives totally different versions of what events took place, all based on self interest, passions, and self defensiveness. Which version was the truth: that of the accused, the murdered, or the wife? Is there not an ultimate truth?

From its very inception, the field of psychology has studied sensation, perception and memory. The studies on sensation and perception are fascinating in that they demonstrate what a fragile thing reality is. The fact is that one person's reality is another person's distortion or even lie.

How many times have married couples sat angrily before me in the consulting room contradicting one another about a particular event?


For example:

A wife states: "He promised to vacuum the house and he didn't. When I got home, the carpet was just as dirty as when I left for work this morning. I called him over to an area of the carpet and asked him 'what is this?' What did you do all day?' Husband's retort: "I did vacuum the entire house, but when the dogs came in from the back yard they dragged in leaves and mud all over again. It’s very frustrating. Also, I hate the way she cross examines me and makes insinuations" She, angrily: "Oh stop it, you know you did not vacuum. I checked the vacuum and it was empty. You don't tell the truth." He, offended and getting louder: "I emptied the vacuum and put a clean bag in after I was done. You see, Doc, she is calling me a liar and I will not be treated this way. What's more, she doesn't ask me to vacuum or do other things, she angrily orders me, as though I'm her servant." She, shocked and defensive: "I do not! I was taught proper manners by my mother. I never give orders. I do not cross examine and I do not insinuate. He's just making things up again." He, now standing and about to leave: "There it is again, she's calling me a liar. I will not put up with it. She is nasty, accusatory ,and dictatorial all the time. She treats me like a child."

In this fictional, but very typical vignette, each individual is absolutely certain of his/her perception or version of the truth. In actuality, they are both correct and they are both incorrect. How is this possible?

The wife, already aggravated about the events at work, walks into the house in the late afternoon feeling extremely frustrated and angry. In a variation of taking aggravations home and "kicking the dog," she metaphorically "kicked" her husband about the job of vacuuming he had done earlier in the day. Besides, her father, (her parents divorced many years ago) always refused to help her mother around the house. To add insult to injury, in her anger, she accuses her husband of being a liar. Earlier in the day and at work, she called a subordinate into her office and confronted that person with a misdeed that they denied and clearly lied about. This was the wife's context when she got home.

The husband, raised by a mother who was very autocratic, is very sensitive to criticism from his wife. It is difficult for him to sense that she may be upset about other things than the household and fails to ask her about her day. In fact, neither one reports on what they are feeling but, instead, gets defensive, angry, and goes on the attack. In the end, each feels alienated, hurt, and misunderstood by the other.

It is a well known phenomenon in psychology that different contexts trigger different perceptions. Depending on your context, when you are listening to a speaker you may hear that speaker say "cults and sects" or "cults and sex." Did the political commentator say "attacks" or "a tax" on our leaders.

Another factor that impacts on our perception is expectation. For example, read the following quote: 


bird in the

the hand

is better than one

in the bush.


Is there anything wrong with the quote? Actually, the word "the" is repeated twice but most of us expect to see it once, just like the wife who came home with certain expectations shaped by how she felt about the day she had at work.

Perception is influenced by all of this and more, including memory. Memory, at best, is inaccurate. The reason for this is that memory is influenced by alcohol, emotions, attention, intervening happenings between the remembered event and the need to retrieve the event, and deterioration over time. Is it any wonder that we perceive things differently?

It is like my daughter wisely stated at the dinner table when she was five-years-old: 

Dad: "MMMM! the chicken is delicious."

Daughter: "I don't like it. Mom, can I have something else?"

Dad: "How can you not like it, it's delicious."

Daughter: "Daddy, we all have different taste buds!!!!!"

How true.Perhaps success in marriage depends on knowing and respecting that two people, no matter how intimate, will always be different.

What do you think?

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Follow us on Twitter!

Find us on Facebook!

This website is certified by Health On the Net Foundation. Click to verify.This site complies with the HONcode standard for trustworthy health information:
verify here.

Powered by CenterSite.Net