Changing the Reference Point


Reference Points change the way we think about the world. This is easiest to see on the Olympic medal stand. Silver medalists never seem happy, while the bronze medalists sometimes seem even happier than those receiving the gold.

The reason is that most silver medalists compares themselves to the gold medalist and think about how they were incredibly close but missed out. Most bronze medalists compare themselves to fourth place, who got nothing, and are thrilled to have gotten a medal at all. Clever propagandists know they can’t change the world as it is, but they can change our reference point for understanding it.


In a recent make-up commercial, an advertiser illustrated how gentle their makeup was by applying it to a balloon. The reference point was clear to see; you must be gentle with balloons, or they will pop therefor this make-up will be gentle on your skin. The truth, however, is that human skin has little in common with the surface of a rubberized inflated bag, a balloon. Bleach is very hard on human skin, but you can dip a balloon in it, and the balloon will be fine. Reference points change perception when reality itself cannot be changed.

Notes on the heading:

While not mentioned by name, I discussed how comparisons impact perception in chapter 20, Semantics: It’s Healthy.

Reference points are one of the most powerful tools of manipulators, advertisers, propagandists, and politicians. Throughout this book, I’ll cover several different ways they are used along with multiple examples from history.

But at the root of them is the simple idea that some points of reality cannot be changed, only perspective. When reality can be changed, it will take hard work, and it’s easier to just change how people see the world.