Perception Process

Understanding the Stages of the Perception Process

PerceptionOpens in new window is not merely a physical or mechanical act; people play an active role in the process. A feature of perception is that it is a personal process which provides each of us with a unique view of the world. It does not however always provide an accurate representation of the world.

The perception process revolves around the ways in which we select, organize and interpret the information that reaches us through our senses. Thus, the perception process occurs in three phases:

  • selection,
  • organization, and
  • interpretation.

The three phases take place relatively unconsciously and almost simultaneously. We discuss each in turn below.

1.  Perception involves selection

Selectivity means choosing information. There are sensory stimuli around you all the time—sights, sounds, smells, textures—yet you focus your attention on very few of them.

When you are deeply engrossed in a book, for example, it is unlikely that you will hear the ticking of your alarm clock or the traffic noises in the background. It is only when your concentration lapses that you pay attention to these sounds.

This phenomenon is often explained by comparing the sense organs to receivers which are tuned to pick up all sorts of information, and the brain to the control mechanism which makes the information meaningful. The first stage in the perception process is that, from the variety of information your senses receive, your brain selects that which is relevant in a particular situation.

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Two factors that influence the selection process are selective exposure and selective attention.

1.1   Selective exposure

A key factor in the way we view the world is the extent to which we are open to stimuli and experiences. From all the sensory stimuli that compete for our attention, we tend to select only those that reaffirm our frame of reference—our existing attitudes, values and beliefs. In similar fashion, we tend to ignore those experiences that are incongruent with our existing attitudes, values and beliefs (cf. Gamble & Gamble 1987).

That is why, for example, most people buy newspapers whose editorial policy confirms their existing political views. They expose themselves to information with which they already agree and disregard information that contradicts their political views. When we communicate with others we make a similar choice, allowing ourselves to be open to some stimuli and excluding others. Limiting our exposure to some messages or to parts of messages may create inaccurate perceptions of what is happening around us.

1.2   Selective attention

A concept related to selective exposure is selective attention.

Selection attention describes how we see what we want to see and hear what we want to hear.

Apart from the physical limitations of our senses (such as a hearing or sight impediment), factors that influence selective attention are our interest and needs.

If you are interested in soccer (sports betting), for instance, you will hear all the statistics that are presented during a radio sports broadcast, whereas someone who is not interested may hear only the sound of the broadcaster’s voice. The driver of the bus that you board has a need to pay attention to traffic lights, pedestrians and other vehicles, whereas you, the passenger, may be unaware of these sights as you have no need to notice them.

A similar process occurs during communicationOpens in new window. In a meeting, for example, you may selectively attend to only those points of discussion that directly concern your work and lose concentration when matters that are less important to you are discussed.

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2.  Perception involves organization

Once the brain has selected the relevant information, it arranges its selections into meaningful patterns according to our frame of reference: this is known as perceptual organization.

The organization of what we perceive is largely affected by our expectations and our desire to form a whole image (a phenomenon called closure). The following two perception tests illustrate how expectations and closure affect the organization of information.

Read the three sentences in illustration I.

Illustration I
perception organization
Fig. I Perception organization

Did you notice that in each sentence the article (the, a) appears twice? If you did not, your expectations may have affected the organization of what you perceived – you expected to see correct sentences and thus read them “correctly”.

Now look at the shapes in illustration II.

Illustration II
perceptual closure
Fig. II Perceptual closure

You probably had no difficulty in identifying the shapes because your mind unconsciously completed or closed the incomplete shapes to provide you with a whole image.

3.  Perception involves interpretation

After sensory stimuli have been selected and organized, we give them meaning in light of our frame of reference in what is called perceptual interpretation.

Interpretation is the process of explaining and evaluating what has been selected and organized. Because people are individuals, they are unlikely to select the same stimuli or organize them in the same way. They are thus unlikely to arrive at the same interpretations of events or other people. Even if they attend to similar parts of the experience, they may still interpret it differently. For example, you may believe that you see two friends arguing, whereas another observer may see them as sharing a joke.

You cannot know which perception is correct without investigating further. The example is often given of three people who witness the same road accident yet provide three different accounts of the sequence of events that led to the accident. All three saw the same events but interpreted and evaluated them in terms of the information they had selected and organized.

Improving the Accuracy of Your Perceptions

Although our perceptions influence our understanding of the world, we rarely consider ways to improve our perceptual accuracy. The suggestions that follow should help you to improve your perceptual skills and to provide you with a more accurate interpretation of the events and people around you.

Perception is personally based

In the beginning of this discussionOpens in new window, we have emphasized that perception is a personal process: your perception of a person, object or event is different from the actual person, object or event. In other words, you are the major actor in the perception process (Gamble & Gamble 1987).

By recognizing that you have biases and that you are not always open to the information around you, you can increase the probability that your perceptions will provide you with accurate information about the world around you and the people in it.

Because of the subjective element in forming perceptions and the resulting inaccuracies, you need some means to check or validate the accuracy of your perceptions and to sharpen your ability to take in and interpret information from your environment.

Apart from making the conscious effort to pay attention and concentrate on what is happening around you, Verderber (1990) suggests two methods that you should learn to use: multisensory cross-check and consensus (comparison).

  1. Multisensory cross-check
    Perceptions are often based on information you receive through one sense—what you see or hear or feel or taste or smell. By cross-checking the interpretation through another sense, you can sometimes validate the accuracy of your perceptions.

    For example, a rock in your friend’s nature collection may look coarse and heavy but proves to be soft and light when you touch it. In fact, it is not a rock at all, but has been made from synthetic material to resemble a rock.

    In this instance, your perception has been influenced not only by what you saw, but the context or environment in which you interpreted what you saw. Similarly, you can cross-check your initial perception that the amber liquid in a glass is apple juice and not beer by tasting and smelling it.
  2. Consensus
    Consensus means that you validate a perception by comparing your interpretation with that of others. You ask others what they think the liquid in the glass is, or how they interpreted an event or someone’s behaviour. In this way, you become aware of factors that you may have missed, and which have distorted your interpretation.

In our next discussion, we briefly discuss Gombrich’s Theory of PerceptionOpens in new window in art, so as to have a view of how perception works in our lives.