How our Perception & Politics impacts our Understanding of Sustainability

Perception is reality. We have heard that many times. One definition of perception “is the organization, identification, and interpretation of sensory information in order to represent and understand the presented information, or the environment.” The key with perception though is that people generally believe perception is fact, and not just an opinion or option. This also feeds into the realm of politics.

Some fun visual examples are shown below:

When it comes to sustainability though, it is really important as there is an extensive breadth and depth of components and corresponding perspectives with sustainability that are impacted by perception. People perceive, interpret, prioritize and subsequently respond to the different aspects of sustainability in very different ways for many different reasons.

This idea of our perceiving and interpreting things differently is often a challenge for many of us, but there has been a lot of recent evidence, research and simple examples to prove this point. To help, this post provides a few examples that illustrate how we perceive and interpret things differently. The intent is to show that we need to appreciate these differences… so that we can respect the big impact they have on how we all deal with sustainability.

1. Different Visual Perceptions: The Dress

On the 26th of February, 2015 a photograph became a viral internet sensation when viewers disagreed over whether the dress was coloured black and blue, or white and gold (the actual colour was eventually confirmed as black and blue… BBC, 2015… personally I still see white and gold). One US study identified that “42 percent saw black and blue. 40 percent saw white and gold. An astounding, confounding 18 percent said they saw neither color combination” (Matyszczyk, 2015). The first week saw more than 10 million tweets mentioning the dress.

This phenomenon highlights basic differences in human perception. We recently did a vote during one of our sustainable project management Masters classes in France, and the votes were essentially split along black and blue, or white and gold. Something as simple as this caused a lot of debate. This is a basic example of how we see things differently.


2. Different Audio Perceptions: Yanny or Laurel or ?

In May 2018 the auditory illusion “Yanny or Laurel” became popular. It was a re-recording of a vocabulary word (Laurel) with some added background sounds also mixed into the recording.

“In the brief audio recording, 53% of over 500,000 people answered on a Twitter poll that they heard a man saying the original word “Laurel”, while 47% reported hearing a voice saying the name “Yanny”. Analysis of the sound frequencies has confirmed that both sets of sounds are present in the mixed recording,[4] but some users focus on the higher frequency sounds in “Yanny” and cannot seem to hear the lower sounds of the word “Laurel”. When the audio clip has been slowed to lower frequencies, then the word “Yanny” has been heard by more listeners, while faster playback loudens “Laurel”…”

Once again, we did a vote during one of our sustainable project management Masters classes in France, and the votes were essentially split along Yanny or Laurel (and some heard other words), and the arguments were quite strong. Once again, something as simple as this caused a lot of debate. So not only do we see different things under certain circumstances, we may hear different things as well.


3. Different Perceptions of Language: British vs. Dutch

GPM does a lot of work with professional associations and standards bodies, and the working groups we belong to are made up of subject matter experts from around the world. One of the first lessons is that people interpret many words and phrases differently, and there is often a lot of hidden “baggage” associated with these words and phrases.

A fun example comes from the British and Dutch language, which share a common Germanic origin. The English people may use special ways to express values or opinions, from which the sometimes paradoxical meaning is not always clear to the other party. Particularly with the Dutch, renowned for their directness, this may cause confusion. We will build on this point in the next section.

“The British are much more formal than the Dutch – they would never ever utter direct criticism but would graciously package their comments,” says Edwin Welman, a Dutch banker working for ABN-AMRO in London, who also worked for several years in the US. “Dutch people just tell you what they think and would never opt for polite phrases to explain a situation.”

Below is an example set of expressions paired with the different interpretations,

This provides an interesting example of how sometimes people may be comparing apples to coconuts and not realizing it. So it is not just an image or a sound that we hear and interpret differently, these are phrases that are perceived completely differently between cultures.


4. Different Cultural Perceptions:

Michael Young reminded me of this brilliant TED talk that is only about two and a half minutes long, but is really fun. It points out a number of assumptions that are completely different in other parts of the world, like street addresses.


Michael Young also recommended this fantastic book to me a couple of years ago, to help our team work better in our standards development and sustainability practices. It identified eight cultural areas that can impact international relations, as outlined below:

  1. Communicating: low-context vs. high-context
  2. Evaluating: direct negative feedback vs. indirect negative feedback
  3. ​Persuading: principles-first vs. applications-first
  4. Leading: egalitarian vs. hierarchical
  5. Deciding: consensual vs. top-down
  6. Trusting: task-based vs. relationship-based
  7. Disagreeing: confrontational vs. avoids confrontation
  8. Scheduling: linear-time vs. flexible-time


Following on the previous language perceptions using the differences between the British and the Dutch, the following cultural difference helps explain why this is the case.


Different Cultural Perceptions: Negative Feedback

Another interesting, and often frustrating, difference culturally is how negative feedback is given, as outlined below:

Direct negative feedback: Negative feedback to a colleague is provided frankly, bluntly, honestly. Negative messages stand alone, not softened by positive ones. Absolute descriptors are often used (totally inappropriate, completely unprofessional) when criticizing. Criticism may be given to an individual in front of a group.

Indirect negative feedback: Negative feedback to a colleague is provided softly, subtly, diplomatically. Positive messages are used to wrap negative ones. Qualifying descriptors are often used (sort of inappropriate, slightly unprofessional) when criticizing. Criticism is given only in private.

(Figure 2.2 Evaluating, Meyer, 2014)

Components within sustainability have a lot of areas where there might be disagreement and negative feedback, and we can see that how that is represented can have an exponentially negative interpretation on the receiving end depending on how it is discussed and presented.  If the Dutch and British have challenges, imagine how Germans and Indonesians debating these topics may feel.

An Example – Climate Change Causation and Responses

For an example of different perceptions around sustainability, lets consider Climate Change, and more specifically the cause of it and what we should do about it.

Anthropogenic (human) causes of Climate Change:

Cause: This group believes that fossil fuels (coal, gas, oil) have caused excessive Co2 emissions that resulted in global warming (Copied from the Environmental Defence Fund):

  1. Simple chemistry – when we burn carbon-based materials, carbon dioxide (CO2) is emitted (research beginning in 1900s)
  2. Basic accounting of what we burn, and therefore how much CO2 we emit (data collection beginning in 1970s)
  3. Measuring CO2 in the atmosphere and trapped in ice to find that it is increasing and that the levels are higher than anything we’ve seen in hundreds of thousands of years (measurements beginning in 1950s)
  4. Chemical analysis of the atmospheric CO2 that reveals the increase is coming from burning fossil fuels (research beginning in 1950s [PDF])
  5. Basic physics that shows us that CO2 absorbs heat (research beginning in 1820s)
  6. Monitoring climate conditions to find that recent warming of the Earth is correlated to and follows rising CO2 emissions (research beginning in 1930s)
  7. Ruling out natural factors that can influence climate like the sun and ocean cycles (research beginning in 1830s)
  8. Employing computer models to run experiments of natural versus human-influenced simulations of Earth (research beginning in 1960s)
  9. Consensus among scientists who consider all previous lines of evidence and make their own conclusions (polling beginning in 1990s)

Solution: Reduce fossil fuel usage and try to remove Co2 from the atmosphere.

Non-Anthropogenic Climate Change: I have pulled the following from a research paper (Robinson, Arthur & Robinson, Noah & Soon, Willie Soon. (2007). Environmental Effects of Increased Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide. Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons. 12, pages 79-90.) to demonstrate an academic perspective from this group:


There are no experimental data to support the hypothesis that increases in human hydrocarbon use or in atmospheric carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are causing or can be expected to cause unfavorable changes in global temperatures, weather, or landscape. There is no reason to limit human production of CO2, CH4, and other minor greenhouse gases as has been proposed (82,83,97,123).


We also need not worry about environmental calamities even if the current natural warming trend continues. The Earth has been much warmer during the past 3,000 years without catastrophic effects. Warmer weather extends growing seasons and generally improves the habitability of colder regions.

As coal, oil, and natural gas are used to feed and lift from poverty vast numbers of people across the globe, more CO2 will be released into the atmosphere. This will help to maintain and improve the health, longevity, prosperity, and productivity of all people.

As we can see, the two positions disagree on the basic cause and the appropriate response based on completely different perceptions.


Different “Political” Predispositions

This last area deals with the very sensitive topic of politics, as the area of sustainability often has political implications. This could stem from the predispositions of those on the extreme left and the extreme right. So, we can probably agree that we perceive and interpret things differently based on sight, sound, language and cultural differences… I think we may also be able to agree that we perceive, interpret and respond to things differently based on where we lie on the political spectrum for certain topics.

This one is the tricky part.  Science has been researching the fact that humans may interact with the world based on their DNA predispositions. This is an extension of the nature / nurture argument. The following books were interesting on this topic:

  • The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.
  • Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences.

What I liked about this perspective, is that people are different (proven that already) and that politics is the same (again tricky, but well argued in the previous two books). Specifically, in politics neither the right nor the left is “wrong” or “right”… it is just how we perceive, interpret and respond to the world based on our predispositions… which obviously can change due to situation and upbringing. So those on the left and right just naturally focus on the following… which provides an interesting interpretation of sustainability.

Once again neither right nor wrong, just different. You need the Yin and the Yang to figure it out.


As we have shown, people may perceive, interpret and respond to different things for different reasons, and one may not necessarily be better or more correct than the other.

Sustainability perception can be complicated. Take the following debating points… there is no simple answer or solution to these issues:

  • Access to affordable energy
  • Renewable energy vs. fossil fuel (oil, gas and coal)
  • Reducing disposable plastic use
  • Climate change (cause and solutions)
  • Biodiversity loss (cause and solutions)
  • Loss and damage from extreme weather and natural disasters (cause and solutions)
  • Refugees and migration
  • Challenges with waste and recycling

There are those who may not even consider some of these issues a priority. The key is to appreciate that people perceive things differently based on a number of reasons… a few of which we have touched on here.



BBC. 27 February 2015, Optical illusion: Dress colour debate goes global. BBC.

Electronic Library of Construction Occupational Safety & Health (December 2016). “Sustainability in the Workplace: A New Approach for Advancing Worker Safety and Health.” The U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Griffin, Andrew. 15 October 2015. The Dress: People who saw it as white and gold had more active brains, scientists claim. The Independent.

Haidt, Jonathan. (2013). The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Retrieved on September 1, 2017 at

Haidt, Jonathan and Iyer, Ravi. (2016). “How to Get Beyond Our Tribal Politics.” The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved on September 1, 2017 at

Hibbing, John R.; Smith, Kevin B.; Alford, John R.. (2013). Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences. Taylor and Francis. Retrieved on September 1, 2017 at

Matyszczyk, Chris. February 28, 2015. Technically Incorrect: A survey conducted to discern a consensus about the world’s most famous piece of clothing shows that America is divided as to what color it is. CNET.COM.

Meyer, Erin. May 27, 2014. The Culture Map (INTL ED): Decoding How People Think, Lead, and Get Things Done Across Cultures. PublicAffairs.

Robinson, Arthur & Robinson, Noah & Soon, Willie Soon. (2007). Environmental Effects of Increased Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide. Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons. 12, pages 79-90.

Rottier, B. , Ripmeester, N. and Bush, A. (2011), Separated by a common translation? How the British and the Dutch communicate. Pediatric Pulmonology. Volume 46, Number 4, p. 409-411. doi:10.1002/ppul.21380

Spector, Dina. Feb. 26, 2016. Why our brains see the black and blue dress as white and gold. Business Insider.

Unknown. Unknown. Doing business: The Dutch with the British. Expatica.

Woodard, Colin. American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. Penguin Publishing Group.

Marshall, George. (Nov 11, 2014). Don’t Even Think About it. Bloomsburg Publishing.

Marshall, George. (Nov 19, 2014). Climate change — the greatest story never told. TEDx WWF.

Harman, Greg. (Nov 10, 2014). Your brain on climate change: why the threat produces apathy, not action. The Guardian.

Galef, Julia. (February 2016). Why you think you’re right — even if you’re wrong. TED talks.

Konnikova, Maria. (May 16, 2014). I Don’t Want to Be Right. The New Yorker.

Choi, Charles Q. “People See Things a Lot Differently than You Might Think.” ABC News, ABC News Network, 1 June 2019,

Peter Milsom

Peter Milsom is an entrepreneurial advocate for sensible, sustainable change delivery practice. Peter has come to realize that sustainability is the perfect catalyst for Project / Programme / Portfolio / Risk / Value / Business Case and Benefits Management improvement. As an entrepreneurial methodologist Peter's unique value proposition is the vast array of tools and techniques that he brings to every engagement using the most cost effective and efficient methods based on the situation and tailored to meet your needs. This is based on his unique combination of experience and extensive training / certifications in change delivery, value / risk / benefits management business case, and business architecture.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.