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

Some Thoughts about Perception, Communication and Disagreement:

Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Jun 15th 2009

My attention is once again focused on the Internet and the way people attempt to communicate their ideas, thoughts, feelings and experiences. What is interesting is that when controversial issues arise, so does the amount of vitriol in individual postings and E. Mails. Whether the issue under discussion is abuse, alcoholism, sexuality, mental illness or modes of treatment, there are times when extremely angry statements are made.

Communication has to do with attempting to enlighten, inform, present and make public, news, opinions, facts and ideas. The mission of Mental Help Net is to help and inform the public about issues of health and mental health. This includes providing a venue through which interested people can join a community effort to exchange experiences and problems, while also gaining some help.

Yet, here, on Mental Help Net, there is a lot of expressed anger about a variety of these issues. Sometimes anger is directed at the mental health professional who has posted an article or at a regular visitor to the site who posts an opinion or experience, and is met with hostility in the form of derision. What is surprising, to me at least, is that sites like Mental Help Net, are meant to be helpful, informative and supportive.

I have wondered why this happens? I have come up with a number of possibilities.

1. Many of us felt very unheard when we were children. Parents, teachers and other adults who dismiss childhood concerns, opinions and wishes, unwittingly cause these children to feel erased. That is not to say that just because a child might want something they should be given it. Rather, the experience of feeling listened to has to do with being taken seriously enough to be given reasons why decisions they may not like have been made. In addition, it is always important to listen to children when they are asking questions or giving explanations about something they learned at school.

2. People who enter adulthood with the awful thought that they are invisible and unimportant can become very angry as well as hopeless. In fact, there is a direct relationship between childhood experiences and future depression and anxiety. A recent study showed that adult anxiety and depression are transmitted to children and not only through genetics. Rather, parents who are going through an episode of depression and anxiety are not able to be there for their children, causing them to feel neglected and unimportant. As a result, self esteem and confidence suffer.

3. Although we live in a democracy here in the United States and other nations are also democratic, there is a lot of discussion that society has become massive due the size of the world population. In other words, many people come to feel like they are mere cogs in a huge and impersonal wheel. This is another form of feeling invisible, disenfranchised and alienated.

4. Many of us have had varied experiences with school, whether we dropped out of high school or continued on to finish PhD's. These varied experiences include the fact that many of us were made to feel wrong, in error, stupid and intellectually limited as a result of the ways we were treated by teachers when we did not do too well in school.

5. Too often, there is the perception that if someone is "not with me, they are against me." In this I am referring to the disussion of opinions and point of view. Perhaps that is a result of some of the factors discussed above but it makes the interchange of ideas very difficult.

6. As part of #5 there is often an earnest wish to change the mind of the other person if they hold another opinion. If the other person is viewed as being "wrong," then the effort to change their opinion is in the service of showing them the "right" minded way of thinking.

7. Some people insist on their own point of view because it becomes a "fight for survival" or a way of not being, once again, negated or made invisible.

8. It is known that perceptions are colored by feelings or emotions and those emotions are often shaped by experience. Therefore, for some, it becomes impossible to hear a conflicting point of view because dearly held perceptions are ingrained by powerful emotions. Under these circumstances, it is hard to admit that someone may entertain differing ideas.

9. Of course, no one likes to be told that they are "wrong." Yet, that is often the attitude that shapes some of these Internet discussions. By believing that someone has told me "I am wrong, I hear that I am stupid or incompetent for believing something shaped by my experience." This attack on the credibility of an individual serves to make them very defensive. That is what leads to anger and the impossibility of a real interchange of experience and ideas.

10. This type of intolerance sometimes permeates marital relationships. For example, if a husband and wife go to the movies together and one enjoyed the movie while the other did not, if the discussion takes the form of "well, I do not understand you, how could you have possibly liked that movie, it was awful and you have terrible taste, an argument permeated with bitterness will follow.

Perception Experiment:

Have you ever participated in the perception experiment with the ambiguous figure of an old hag that, when viewed at from another angle, looks like a young woman? Most commonly, people will clearly see either the old hag or the young woman. Who's perception is correct. The answer is that both perceptions are correct. However, once perceived as a hag or young woman, it is difficult to view the other point of view unless someone demonstrates how to ignore the outlines of the one in order to see the other.

Another perception experiment is demonstrated in the picture at the top of this article. Do you see a white vase? Do you see the profile of a black lady on the left. Do you see another black lady on the right? It can be very difficult to see the ladies if you have first seen the vase. In the same way, it can be difficult to see the vase if you have first seen the lady.

Much of life is like that. That is why "eye witness testimony" is no longer considered to be absolutely correct in criminal trials. Even when a crime is being witnessed, people often report very different points of view of what really happened. This is part of the reason why DNA evidence has become overridingly important today. DNA is cold, hard fact, not influenced by point of view.

This is also why families, wive and husbands, teens and parents, nations and others argue with each other. It is very difficult to even perceive that another person may have a different perception than your own.

The Internet:

All of these factors and more are further complicated by the nature of the Internet. After all, the Internet is anonymous. Just the fact that people are holding discussions with one another without being in voice contact renders the entire interaction anonymous. Voice inflections, non verbal gestures, facial expressions, tones of voice and other factors that form important aspects of human interaction, are absent by the very nature of the Internet. More than a few people have understood and commented on the fact that this anonymity has made it easier for people to behave more aggressively than they would if they were in the same room with the other people.

There may not be a conscious and deliberate attempt to be insulting toward others on the Internet. Rather,the Internet serves as a vast blank screen onto which people project their feelings and attitudes. The process of projection onto this blank Internet screen distorts the internal mental image of the anonymous person with whom we are interacting.

Using myself as an example and depending on the issue being discussed, I have been viewed as: 1. A paid advocate for drug companies if I say anything positive about psychiatric mediations, 2. Someone who himself must be circumsized if I report on research indicating that adult circumcision "may" help stem the tide of sexually transmitted diseases" in other parts of the world, 3. An intolerant and prejudiced person if I report the fact that schizophrenia is a disease of the brain, 4. An inept and dangerous therapist if I say anything positive about Alcoholics Anonymous, 5. Just another insensitive man and incompetent therapist, if I advise a woman, married to a Bipolar man who has been abusive, to wait and see if things improve because he has only just been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and is starting medication, 6. Homosexual when I counsel tolerance toward people who are gay, whether men or women, 7. Obviously never been married or had children because if I were, I would not write some of things I do write, and etc. etc.
How can I be all of  these things at the same time? Easy, because its all projection.

Not Only the Internet:

Just to state what should be obvious, it is not only on the Internet where these distortions and misunderstandings occur. They occur in daily interaction between people, whether they are spouses, friends, within the family circle,in work groups or in any type of social situations. Whenever we are with other people,we bring with us our past and present because they profoundly shape us and our sense of what to expect. This is why human communication is so difficult.

However, I am in no way hopeless about communication and relationship. Quite the contrary, in my opinion, there is nothing more important than human interaction and communication. There will always be obstacles to smooth communication because it is imperfect at best. However, we thrive through communication and interaction because people need one another. It is my goal to work through the misunderstandings, distortions and miscommunications that occur as we talk to each other on the Internet and in person.

In the service of understanding, I want to make it very clear that communication is as difficult for me as for everyone else because, I, like everyone else, am subject to distortions and emotions that cloud understanding other people.

Your comments, your communications, are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, PhD


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.

Disagreement - Joan - Mar 15th 2010

Hello, I just want to say that I absolutely agree with you. Just add two more points (and sorry for me english, I don't speak it very well):

- Sometimes people can find that something posted on internet hits directely an idea that this person was maintaining for several years. It's normal that he/she turns in rage, because it helps him/her to protect this old idea. But after some time, people usually ends accepting the possibility to be wrong.

- There'll always be people who thinks different than you, and even you can find 2 persons arguing for something about you while you see both them, in the middle of them surprised because they argue about you as you were not there. Whatever, arguing is what makes society walk forward: Women can study at college because one day there was a discussion about her right (or not) to do that!

Nice mirror - malign - Jun 16th 2009

So you've achieved a politician's dream, to be all things to all people.  Just let people project it all on you.  The reason this doesn't work for politicians is that all the projections are negative.  :-)

I think you're right;  people discussing controversial matters on the internet seem to allow themselves to become more polarized than they do when discussing them in person.  So, since all the things you mentioned operate in both contexts, I would add another point:  the distance of the internet allows people to make a more complete projection, if they're prone to them.

The Truth. - JR - Jun 16th 2009

"The truth is rarely pure, and never simple."

Oscar Wilde, "The Importance of Being Ernest".

Sorry that I have slightly misquoted this in previous posts - but the idea is the same.

Best regards,


The internet is a very tricky place - JP - Jun 15th 2009

Dr. Schwartz, 

I wholeheartedly agree with your thoughts about communication.  The internet is a very tricky place to accurately convey oneself in the absence of, as you say, our tone as well as the overall "essence" of who we are and what specific "state of mind" we are in when posting and reading posts alike.  I sometimes feel hesitant to post or respond to people on the internet because when I speak to someone in person, i have a fairly well muscled ability to be aware, sensitive and offer considerations to an individual(s) that is simply not possible when posting on line.  In addition, not only are my posts being read by its intended recipient, but also by sometimes hundreds of other people who I do not know the first thing about.  Some people are easily hurt, conflicted or even just confused - and for very good reason, once one learns of his experiences.  I often am concerned that some woman, for example, in Idaho who I know nothing about may have some sensitivity and my words or tone or at least my inability to offer her specific considerations, will have a negative impact.  

Although I am not sure that doing so on line is ideal, I do believe that communication within each of our personal lives offers challenges which are accompanied by opportunities and solutions.  As people strive toward being more responsible with one's communication and become more aware of our tendency to "project" or hold other people accountable for feelings that more often than not, have nothing to do with the other person,  there is great opportunity to grow and connect to the sensitivities that are ours by nature and when implemented, are very fulfilling and can turn around the source of the very thing that detached us from that ability to begin with.  Perhaps to some it sounds a bit too basic, or even unscientific, but I know first hand that love and understanding can be the strongest forces that lead us each to inner peace and collective peace.  I also know that at some point in my own growth I discovered that there is very little difference (if any) in hurting oneself vs. hurting someone else.  My personal experience is that both leave me feeling equally badly.  Therefore, although I am not always successful at it, I do my best to recognize others as part of myself and offer all of us as much sensitivity and consideration that I can muster up. 

Thanks for your insights.  


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