Dealing with Delusions

Posted on July 10, 2014 by Robert Ringer


Perception is a topic that has always fascinated me. When a person is revered, the reverence quickly disappears if something happens that changes the public’s perception of that individual. If, for example, the person on the receiving end of the adulation is exposed as a fraud or falls into disgrace, admiration soon turns to contempt.

I thought about this while watching a show about Roman Emperor Caligula (a.d. 37-41) on History. Caligula’s given name was Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus. When he was a little boy, his father, Germanicus, dressed him in the military uniform of the day, including sandals called “caliga.” As a result, the troops nicknamed him Caligula (“Little Boots”).

Germanicus was the JFK of his time, a charismatic figure who was loved by the Roman citizenry. Emperor Tiberius, fearful of his popularity, sent him off to Asia to kick some butt for the Empire, and he later died in Syria under rather mysterious circumstances that many assumed had been engineered by Tiberius.

Ultimately, Tiberius had Caligula’s mother and two brothers put to death, and, after years of torment and being shuffled from one relative to another, Caligula was brought to live at the emperor’s palace. For reasons that still puzzle me, Tiberius named him as co-heir, along with his cousin Tiberius Gemellus.

After Tiberius’s death, because of their fond memories of his father, the Roman people were wildly excited when Caligula ascended to power. It was the way a large percentage of Americans might have felt had John F. Kennedy Jr. been elected president.

Shortly after becoming emperor, Caligula had his joint-heir, Tiberius Gemellus, “eliminated.” But no one seemed to see this as a sign of things to come. Probably the main reason it was ignored was that he lavished money and other goodies on the people of Rome — and, much like today’s government-dole recipients, they adored him for his “generosity.” It was a veritable love fest.

Then, suddenly, Caligula shifted into a different mode and began a reign of cruelty and depravity that was extreme even by Roman standards. As a result, the people soon came to fear and hate him. Ultimately, after less than four years in power, his own bodyguards stabbed him to death.

Did something happen that caused Caligula to suddenly go insane? There has been much speculation about it over the centuries, but no one will ever know for certain. Regardless, when the perception of the man changed, adoration for him was replaced by hatred.

A modern-day analogy to Caligula could be O.J. Simpson, who for more than two decades was an all-American role model beloved by millions. A mutual friend once introduced me to O.J., and I recall thinking what a really nice chap he was. But once it became clear that he savagely butchered two innocent people, my perception of him changed dramatically.

Most people think of the O.J. of today as a narcissistic, violent person with no moral foundation or conscience. Now that he is finally in prison (for committing an unrelated crime), what is your current perception of O.J. Simpson?

Another good example is Mark McGwire. McGuire was the Paul Bunyan of baseball, hitting an unfathomable seventy homeruns in 1998 to shatter Roger Maris’s record of sixty-one. But what made him such a legendary figure was his nice-guy image. Who can forget his climbing into the stands to hug Maris’s children after breaking their father’s record?

But when McGwire testified before the House Government Reform Committee as part of the Congressional investigation of steroids in sports, he was so evasive that people saw it as a de facto admission of his guilt. McGwire came across as a sullen, weak man, far from the strong, pleasant persona of his playing days. What is your perception of Mark McGwire today?

Unfortunately, no matter how hard we try, most of our perceptions of people will be misguided a significant percentage of the time. It’s one thing to be off target occasionally, but quite another to be consistently wrong. That’s because the foundational principle of all other success principles is having an accurate perception of reality. Which means that great achievements are virtually impossible if one’s perception of reality is perpetually faulty.

The best antidote to this potentially fatal condition is to pay more attention to what people say than to what they appear to be. In other words, don’t be taken in by credentials, demeanor, or reputation. Hey, you can’t get much better credentials than being emperor of Rome, and just about everyone got misled by Caligula.

Likewise, just because someone doesn’t have great credentials doesn’t mean he doesn’t possess skills or wisdom. Some of the best insights I’ve heard over the years have come from “no name” people.

There is no magic way to sort out worthwhile information from junk. The truth of the matter is that it’s up to you to weigh the content of people’s words and make good decisions about them. And to do that, you have to be vigilant about not becoming mesmerized by superficial appearances or credentials.

In the words of Buddha, “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” It’s something to ponder as you go about trying to deal with the delusions that are being offered up by politicians, media talking heads, and so-called experts on a daily basis.

Assume nothing to be true. If your mother says she loves you, check it out.

Robert Ringer

Robert Ringer is an American icon whose unique insights into life have helped millions of readers worldwide. He is also the author of two New York Times #1 bestselling books, both of which have been listed by The New York Times among the 15 best-selling motivational books of all time.

16 responses to “Dealing with Delusions”

  1. Andy Iskandar says:

    "If your mother says she loves you, check it out."

    That's cold. But you can't make your point any more stronger than that. Message received.

    • dol says:


  2. Murray Suid says:

    Robert, the examples you give are for people we "know" via the media. That is, we don't know the people directly and intimately. We don't have a chance to listen to the people in a variety of situations. Generally, the perceptions are managed. How different when it comes to people we live with, work with, play with (on teams, in bands), and even pray with.

    What did I know about O.J. before he allegedly killed his wife and her friend? Practically nothing. I saw him play football and my perception was that he was an excellent player. But that perception didn't make me think he was a nice guy. I enjoyed his film performances, but I knew that those were based on scripts and props and so on. I wouldn't go into business with him based on his movie persona.

    As for politicians, I would say we'll come out ahead if instead of listening to what they say we pay attention to what they do. What bills do they introduce or support? What lobbyists do they hang out with and take money from? Even then, we can't really know the politicians unless we work for them or live in their neighborhood or constantly observe them, for example, by going to city council meetings.

    These days Facebook has taught us to include as "friends" many people we've not met face to face. A person would have to be very naive to think that he knows the reality about someone like that.

    • Will Bontrager says:

      Yes, I agree, a way that generally helps to see the reality is to see what people do. Talk is a tool for perception manipulation. What a person does can support the talk or it can show it to be manipulative.

  3. Thomas Olson says:

    Steroid use was technically "against the rules" in MLB from 1991. But de facto, as many as 80% of players "juiced" at one time or another during that period. No actual penalties were imposed until 2005. So Mcguire was juicing when he hit 70 in 1998. So was everybody else. No one thought twice about it. They felt they had to do it to stay ahead. But my opinion of Mcguire hasn't changed one bit since then. He's still a great guy, and even if they put an asterisk by his name, he walloped Maris' record. An asterisk won't take that away. And it was still a thrill to watch.

  4. Richard Lee Van says:

    Perception. Subjectivity and "objectivity". Some of my favorite topics! And Belief Versus "knowing". We enjoy or dis-enjoy our perceptions, which are subjective. And, we say we "know" when in "fact" we only have "beliefs about". Most of what we say we "know' we only have "beliefs about". AND, when we say something is an "objective fact" we usually/always are only pointing to GROUP SUBJECTIVITY. Agreement does not prove validity. Agreement does NOT make something "true" or "good" or "real". Mostly we have our "perceptions" of and our "beliefs about", and they are necessarily subjective, and may or may not be true. What constitutes that which is said to be REAL or GOOD or FACT? I remember one smart-assed student way back in time said, "Well, Mr. VDV, EVERYthing is only relative isn't it?" To which I replied, NO, some things (eg values) are better than others. How may that be true? The Pragmatists have a good "working" answer: IF IT WORKS, IF SOMETHING WORKS, IT IS TRUE!. The Pragmatists, and the Stoics (attitude toward wherein lies our human freedom) provide excellent ways to understand, judge and be Use-value determines much of what is GOOD in our lives. Etc. and so on… I love spinning like this! And I really appreciate Mr. Ringer's thought-taking commentaries!

  5. Paul Revere and the Aiders says:

    Your insightful article reminds me of why I don't vote.

  6. Serge says:

    These are great ideas on figuring people out from perceptions to gut feelings. One other simple and affordable idea is to do a background check on the people you would consider in your life, business or otherwise. Look at Barack and his background. Paul Mc Cartney could have avoided a lot of anguish from a marriage. Bad employees constantly slip through the cracks. Then again, a person could check out and still do a 360 on you.

  7. David Welber says:

    Never put anyone on a pedestal. they will fall off.

  8. Arturo says:

    What about the opposite scenario? Can a person who has deeply disappointed others ever find redemption? Can reputations be repaired?

    • Jean says:

      That would depend on the breach. Real redemption involves repairing and repaying whatever debt the person incurred. If an individual cheats on a spouse, he or she can repair the breach, but can't repay the emotional losses. If an individual cheats on taxes, he or she can repay the debt AND be diligent in their bookkeeping going forward. If an individual commits murder, he or she can do time in prison, make needed changes to his or her world view and value system so as not to consider murder a viable solution to an immediate need, and live a decent life, but can never repair the actual damage done.

  9. Moose says:

    Robert, thank you for continuing to share informed insights w/ us !, tho "History is a tale told by the winners", and the only worthwhile study is Mathematics…everything else is just a story…….
    So Quantify doen't Qualify…on the news a mom gave her daughter an expensive toy (Apple Product) for a promise to get good grades in school , girl gets robbed put up a fight & is killed, I'd say everyone is to blame here, tho mom virtually set the kid on fire by starting a chain of events based on an absurd correlation between reward performance and achievement .
    in Boston 90% of people believe their cellphone is their most important asset, 90% seem overweight, I do not have a cell or am overweight, seems there is this lament as to wealth distribution, tho I never saw an overweight successful cell owner either
    a credit score is insightful as are numerical ratings, "The Bell Curve" was a great book using statistics to bring "facts about society" to everyone, wow it evoked quite a lot of hateful rhetoric tho, again the "Gorgias" how bout them ethics (obsolete word/concept)

  10. Everyone will eventually disappoint you, as you will eventually disappoint others, and yourself. It's inevitable. There was only one perfect person ever born. But I get what you mean, Robert. Some people make no effort to do "good" while others strive for it everyday.

    After reading “Winning Through Intimidation” (in the late 70’s), and, as a result, understanding my opponents in the game, I came to realize it was very difficult to personally rise above being a Type I, II, or III business personality. Even if you objectively achieved it, there were some people who would feel you didn’t treat them fairly, no matter what you did. I occasionally even gave back 100% of fees, as an experiment, to see if some of the most difficult folks would then sing me praises, and even then, some of these crazy folks STILL felt I treated them unfairly. So, we have that subjective part of human thinking, along with its crazy emotional component. Thanks for another great article.

  11. larajf says:

    It's not just words but also actions…wasn't it Emerson who said "What you are screams at me so loudly that I can't hear what you say?" (or something like that).
    Trust but verify always.

  12. Liz says:

    As a youngster exposed to mentally unstable family members and then subsequently disappointed or betrayed by friends and associates while growing up, I developed this theory of human relations: Whatever qualities a person appears to have, flip them over to their complete opposite and you'll be closer to the truth of the person. I can't say that everyone I've ever known has been a total fake but people generally are pretending something — to be, to have, to do, to think, to believe — just about all the time.

  13. DOL says: