That awkward moment when you mistake a stranger for a friend

Ever had that experience where you see a friend on the street and walk up to greet them, only to realize that they’re a complete stranger? Ever mistaken a total stranger for your crush or lover?

What’s funny is that sometimes you realize they’re a stranger after you’ve greeted them and they’ve greeted you back. Even funnier is when a complete stranger greets you out of the blue and you greet them back without having any freaking idea who he is!

In both cases, when you’re well past each other, both of you are thinking, “Who the hell was that?”

In this article, we explore why our mind plays such awkward and funny tricks on us.


Thinking, reality, and perception

We don’t always see reality as it is but rather we see it through the lens of our own unique perception. What’s going on in our mind sometimes influences what we perceive. This is especially true when we are under the grip of an emotional state or when we’re thinking about something obsessively.

For example, out of fear we might mistake a piece of rope lying on the ground for a snake or a bundle of thread for a spider and out of hunger, we might mistake a coloured round plastic cup for a fruit. Strong emotional states such as anger, fear and even anxiety can make us misperceive reality in a way that reinforces these emotions.

Even thinking about something in an obsessive way, with or without the emotion, can distort the way we perceive reality.

When you’re obsessed with someone, you tend to think about that person a lot and you’re likely to mistake other people for that person. It’s often shown in the movies: when the actor has been ditched and is wallowing in his sorrow, he suddenly notices his lover on the street. But when he goes up to her, he realizes that she’s someone else.

These scenes are not just included to make the movie more romantic. Such things happen in real life too. 

It’s just that the actor is continually over-thinking about his lost love, so much so that his thinking is now tipping over into his reality, so to speak.


Just like a person obsessively in love with someone tends to see that person everywhere, a person dying from hunger will see food where there is none because he’s obsessively thinking about food. After watching a horror movie, a person is likely to mistake a coat hanging in the closet for a headless monster.

This is why when someone’s scared and you nudge them from behind they freak out and scream or when you’ve just thrown away a large spider, an innocuous itch on the leg makes you slap and jerk it like a lunatic!

Your obsessive thoughts are overflowing into your reality and you subconsciously react to them before you even get a chance to be fully conscious and separate facts from imagination.

thinking, perception and reality

Making sense of incomplete information

Why do we, out of so many people that we see on the street, only misperceive one particular person but not the others? What’s so special about that one stranger? How can one stranger apparently seem less strange than the other strangers?

Well, that’s pretty much like asking why we misperceive a rope for a snake and not a coat or why we misperceive a coat for a ghost and not a rope.

Our mind tries to make sense of whatever little information our senses provide it with. This ‘making sense’ implies that the mind compares what it senses with what it already knows. Whenever presented with new info, it thinks, “What’s similar to this?” Sometimes it even convinces itself that similar objects are the same and we have what are known as the errors in perception.

The reason you go up to a particular person to greet them and not the others is that the person resembles your acquaintance, friend, crush or lover in some way. It may be the size of their bod, their skin colour, hair colour or even the way they walk, talk or dress. You mistook a stranger for your for someone you knew because the two had something in common.

The mind tries to make sense of information as soon as it can and so when it noticed the stranger, it checked its information database to see who that might be or, in simpler words, it asked itself “Who is similar? Who looks like that?” and if you happened to think a lot about that person lately, your odds of misperception are bound to increase.

The same thing happens on the auditory level when someone says something vague to you that you’re unable to make sense of. 

“What did you say?”, you reply, confused. But after some time you magically figure out what they were saying, “No, no it has nothing to do with that”.
Initially, the information was vague, but after some time the mind made sense of it by processing whatever broken information it had.
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