Eggs used to be good for you. Along with some crispy bacon and toast with butter, they were part of a healthy breakfast – or so they said. Then all of a sudden eggs were bad for you. Too much cholesterol. Then the yellows were bad for you but the whites were good. Now our perception is that eggs are good for you again. For hundreds of thousands of years, before systemized agriculture, early humans lived on animal fats and proteins. Granted, we didn’t live much past 45 years old because the world was an inhospitable place back then. But sometime around the middle to end of the last century, meats – and specifically animal fats – were deemed bad for us. Nutritionists and physicians alike recommended a diet high in whole grains and low in fat. Unfortunately, after almost 40 years of this diet, obesity rates are higher than ever and we’re starting to hear that the culprit is carbohydrate – white sugar and white flour mostly, but also the formerly deified whole grains.
All of a sudden animal protein and fats are back. And nutritionists and food writers from Nina Teicholz to Gary Taubes are falling all over themselves to recommend a return to the high fat, low-fiber diets our grandparents ate. Marbled meats, butter and cream, offal, and even bacon, are making their dramatic return on trendy menus and people’s plates.
It’s good for you. It’s bad for you. It’s good for you. It’s bad for you. Wait, now it’s good for you again. How can anyone be expected to know what they should be eating, especially when the perception is that the experts don’t know either?
The pendulum of political viewpoints and solutions, too, swings from apex to apex – collecting acolytes and fanatics along the way. These folks build their worldview on the hearsay and unproven theories that appeal to them the most. They often spout personal opinions disguised as empirical evidence and use the unsubstantiated historical references they believe confirm their beliefs. If you’ve tried to have a conversation with someone who’s firmly set in their ways and lives in the reassuring echo chamber of media sources that support their dogmatic perceptions, you know it’s an exercise in futility. After all, you can’t logically talk someone out of something they didn’t logically talk themselves into.
As Patrick Daniel Moynihan famously said, “You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.” But as we’ve seen, the problems start when viewpoints are presented as facts and perception becomes confused with truth.
This comingling of fact and fiction gets even worse in the arena of public opinion where perception serves as reality. The history of marketing is littered with examples of better products that didn’t succeed because of the perceived value of their competitors. Betamax lost to VHS even thought the former was technologically superior. Post (and pre) Jobs Apple almost lost to IBM even though the product was more advanced. GM’s Saturn — “A different kind of car company, a different kind of car” — went the way of the dodo bird as did Pontiac, Oldsmobile, and Saab because the perception of their brand value couldn’t compete in the marketplace.
What’s both beneficial and dangerous about perception is how powerfully it drives our actions. Physicians and pharmacists have long accepted the placebo and nocebo effect, where patients respond positively to the medicines they believe will help them regardless of the content of the actual drugs they’re taking.
Consumers buy based on perception. Voters vote based on perception, too. Public opinion shifts based on numerous factors, many of which have no actual basis in function or reality but still affect business and political outcomes in very real and consequential ways.
As our worlds become more and more digital and increasingly separated from physical realities, what is evident is that perception, and the ability to harness and control perception, is becoming more important than ever. And in a world of constantly changing recommendations and advice, consumers are looking for things they can believe in and thought leaders they can trust. They’re looking for the sense of Tribal Equity™ that reassures them that their perceptions are right, the world is secure and their direction is correct.