Game of Cults: The Powerful Nexus of Perception, Expectation, and Identity Formation

Before we get into our principal discussion about perception, I must share some personal learning and change with you.

Call it a pivot.

Writing these articles with the idea that they will one day become a book creates pressure to get it right the first time.


That my muse and I get this right the first time and craft forty-five coherent articles that, when put together, create a book you would reread is a big ask.

More likely, I will create the forty-five articles, and they will look like Frankenstein’s monster when stitched together into a book.

So, I pivot.

Right here. Right now.

Expecting these articles to be the end product that can be wrapped up into a book is arrogant and limits us as we learn—certainly, it limits me.

Instead, this series is better to be treated as you looking over my shoulder as I work in the kitchen.

You’re seeing me figure out how to get the flavor profile right before writing the recipe down.

That realization has changed everything and opened up our opportunities. Now, these articles are THE PROCESS of discovery, recorded together with you.

The book becomes a second pass and a way to extract second-order learning from the research and refine the message.

This is all to let you know that you may wait longer for the follow-up book to be released, but it won’t just be a carbon copy of what you read here.

The book will be an opportunity to distill and extrapolate.

The book will be the first recording of an advanced content marketing system based on the principles of Game of Cults.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled article…

Perception = expectation

Let’s do a quick recap of where we are with figuring out how to get a reader to make your books part of their identity.

We need to get them to feel something about your product. To do that, the product has to be meaningful to them.

How can we use Sean Webb’s hypothesis that our feelings are driven by our perception and expectations about things we have attached to our identity?

If we can get your characters and story onto your reader’s “map of self,” then they will ascribe meaning to your book.

We look to create positive expectations about interactions with our products.

Our perception is as powerful as our expectation. In some cases, our expectation drives our perception. Watch this quick video, preferably with the sound off, and see how your assumptions change.


Within a few moments, your feelings change about the man in the movie clip. You begin with bias based on his looks, which are further confirmed by the circumstances, but then everything changes.

I show you this to highlight how even a bias about a person’s looks falls on your “self-map” and is evaluated by this perception-expectation formula.

You expect this person to act according to his appearance until he doesn’t. Along the way, your feelings change subtly from anxious and repelled to surprised and trusting.

Remember my story of the two friends sharing their experiences and feelings about a character on a show? That process was two people putting each other on their self-map.

The two were building their relationship by validating their worldviews and signaling acceptance through the media they watched.

Your brain does this consciously and unconsciously, 24/7/365.

Most of the work is unconscious, then fed up to the conscious.

To understand perception, we need to understand who and what ends up part of our self-image. It’s far more than what we see in a mirror.


After ourselves, we add people to our self-image. Friends, family, and associates all become part of who we are. There are certain people we will risk ourselves for because we value them as much as or more than we value ourselves.

Your characters can fall into this category.

Research looking at fMRI scans while surveying people about friends, family, and video game avatars has shown that these real and imagined people stimulate the same areas of the brain.

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Your characters are physically manifested in the brain of a reader, just like a real person. Why not focus on building relationships between your reader and your characters?

Possessions and accomplishments

How we see ourselves is tied to what we have accomplished in life. Status is important. It’s not just how we see ourselves in the community and world but how we think others see us.

University of Illinois Professor Tiffany Barnett White showed in her research that consumers took on positive and negative self-images based on how the market perceived brands they had tied to their identity.

We argue that consumers with high self-brand connections (SBC) respond to negative brand information as they do to personal failure—they experience a threat to their positive self-view. After viewing negative brand information, high (vs. low) SBC consumers reported lower state self-esteem. Consumers with high SBC also maintained favorable brand evaluations despite negative brand information. However, when they completed an unrelated self-affirmation task, they lowered their brand evaluations the same as low SBC consumers. This finding suggests that high SBC consumers’ reluctance to lower brand evaluation might be driven by a motivation to protect the self rather than the brand.

If BMW announces a major recall on the news, you take it personally if you are a BMW driver.

This makes sense based on the hypothesis that the product denotes status, and when the product’s performance deteriorates that status, our status deteriorates in our perception and the perception of others. Our perception and what we think of others’ perceptions may not align with our expectations.

Ideas and beliefs

Our ideas and beliefs heavily influence us.

As you’ll learn, brainwashing isn’t a thing. We have to be open and willing to accept an idea.

Once we integrate ideas and concepts into our being, they become beliefs. The reason it’s hard to change one’s beliefs is that once the belief is integrated into our perception of self, questioning the belief is perceived as a threat to self.

Your story

We are part of the story we tell others and ourselves about our lives. Everything has a spin. We are always trying to find and attach meaning to what we do.

Everything is a narrative.

You never robotically go through your day’s events when someone asks how your day went. You add action, color, and most of all, meaning.

We want to get your work integrated into the reader’s self-map in as many ways as possible. Story and world-building are part of the process of integrating your brand into your reader’s life story.

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We want scenes and dialogue from your story to become metaphors and inspirations in their real life.

When the easiest way for a reader to convey to another person how they feel or perceive their life story is to quote your work as a reference point, you have established your work in their identity.

Our unconscious preservation of our self-map influences our view of the world, our perceptions, and our expectations. I know this is some heavy stuff. It begins to tear at the fabric of reality and what we think we consciously control.

We all want to believe that we can’t be manipulated and that we’re in control. The problem is that, with so many stimuli, our unconscious has to filter out most of the noise to function in modern society. This makes us more functional but in far less control than we think.

It’s not that our senses lie to us. Our unconscious uses preconceived notions and our self-map to process the torrential data we face every waking (and unwaking) moment.

You may still be figuring out how to get your work on the self-map of readers. I understand that there are still some missing pieces at this point, but we’re almost there.

The next article will be about language, and that will be a cornerstone in how you can begin to use your words to stake a claim on your reader’s self-map—a way to get them to perceive your story as part of their story.

One more thing…

I have some more videos for you to watch.

We are at a point where complex ideas may have you feeling overwhelmed. This comes from the learning experience and integrating my ideas into your thoughts.

Let’s create awe and make this fun as you enter uncharted territory.

Video one: The Neuroscience of Creativity, Perception, and Confirmation Bias

Read: Why Time and Patience Are Essential to Your Career