Frameworks of Perception

The mental templates and life experiences we bring to any situation strongly affect how we process experience and relate to others.

How we organize what we know and the patterns of thought we characteristically display, referred to as schemata, when combined with our preconceived ideas or sets and selectivities along with two other constructs, ethnocentrism and stereotyping, define our perceptions and reveal our perceptual vulnerabilities. What is more, we often enact our perceptions without any conscious awareness.

We'll spend the remainder of this entry, delving deeper into each of these constructs.

1.   Schemata

Schemata are the mental templates of characteristics that influence our notions or ideas about other people. Four perceptual schemata, or cognitive frameworks, help us decide what others are like and whether we would like to get to know them better:

  • Physical constructs enable us to classify people according to their physical characteristics, including age, weight, and height.
  • Interaction constructs point us toward their social behavior cues; for example, are they friendly, arrogant, aloof?
  • Role constructs focus on their social position; for example, are they professors, students, administrators?

Which of these schemata are you conscious of using when you first met someone?

2.   Perceptual Sets and Selectivities

Perceptual sets and Selectivities is organizational constructions that condition a readiness to perceive, or a tendency to interpret stimuli in ways to which one has been conditioned.

For some of us, we learn to make sense of the world by organizing the stimuli we perceive uniquely. The lessons that our family, friends, and culture teach us, condition us to perceive stimuli in set ways, effectively helping us to construct our social reality.

These organizational constructions are known as Perceptual sets and Selectivities; they are established gradually over time and help us decide which stimuli we should attend to. For example, if we are raised in a family that values education, we are likely to perceive learning-related activities more positively than we would if we had been raised in a family that dismisses education as important.

Likewise, if we grow up in a home where a particular religious or ethnic group is consistently demeaned, we would be more likely to believe in that group’s inferiority. Because past lessons and experiences are part of us at every new encounter, our past influences our interpretations and evaluations of the present.

Variables like education and culture can also influence our perception to an extent. They can trigger us to make sense of our environment by selecting stimuli significant to us. For example, American culture supports the open expression of opinion, whereas in Japanese culture, talk is not necessarily viewed as good and may be considered a sign of shallowness. Therefore, an American may perceive long silence to be embarrassing and uncomfortable, but a Japanese person accepts periods of silence as perfectly normal. Culture helps to condition us to communicate in distinctive ways.

Again our internal states of being, like education and culture, can also cause us to exhibit our own perceptual selectivities or preferences. Take for example, just as thirsty people lost in the desert tend to see water mirages, so hungry people are more apt to see food before their eyes when shown a series of ambiguous pictures than are individuals who are full.

3.   Ethnocentrism and Stereotypes

Ethnocentrism is the tendency to perceive what is right or wrong, good or bad, according to the categories and values of one’s own culture. When we become ethnocentric, we mentally formulate categorizations that make up the perception that are familiar and comfortable to our “in-group” and apply categorizations that are unfamiliar and awkward to an “out-group.”

While such a process can help us make sense of our world, it also can cause us to narrow our perceptions and use a rigid repertoire of behaviors dependent on the taking of perceptual shortcuts— the kinds of perceptions exhibited by lazy perceivers who rely on stereotypes to help them make sense of experience, or the use of stereotypes that reduce our communication effectiveness.

Stereotypes, in similarity, are rigid perceptions which are applied to all members of a group or to an individual over a period of time, regardless of individual variations.

Once generalizations become rigid stereotypes, they actually contribute to our losing touch with the real world. Such stereotypes share two key characteristics:

  1. they lead us to categorize others on the basis of easily recognized, but not necessarily significant, qualities (for example, noticing a person’s ethnicity before anything else, and
  2. they lead us to ascribe an array of qualities to most or all members of a group (for example, assuming that all persons of Asian descent are soft-spoken and shy). When our generalizations harden, we are likely to disregard any differences in individuals that set them apart from the stereotyped group.

Stereotyping and racial profiling— a form of stereotyping attributed to racism— have the potential to plague both interracial and intercultural communication. On the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Geoffrey Canada, educator and president of Harlem Children’s Zone, offered an example of what can happen, drawn from his observations and reflections on 9/11:

I don’t think many other communities experienced what we experienced in Harlem. We began to have African-American kids beating up Muslim kids, and it shocked all of us. African-American kids thought they were committing some act of patriotism.

We began to reach out to the community of those from Northern Africa who live around 125th Street who are mostly Muslim, and create relationships so those folks weren’t looking at each other through the prism of stereotypes and wouldn’t automatically assume this was a bad person.

And that work has continued as these young people have been growing up, [to offset] these sort of messages that they receive via the media, where they’re constantly being bombarded with terrorism being connected to Islam. We, as a community, live side by side.

When we stereotype instead of responding to the communication or cues of individuals, we create expectations, assume they are valid, and behave as if they have already occurred.

We judge people on the basis of what we believe regarding the group in which we have placed them. We emphasize similarities and overlook differences. Stereotyping leads us to oversimplify, generalize, and grossly exaggerate our observations.

Schemata, perceptual sets and selectivities, and ethnocentrism and stereotypes, altogether play major parts in structuring our perceptions. By recognizing their roles and understanding their potential effects, we can prepare ourselves to question whether we are processing experience accurately and are thinking critically and reflectively about the judgments we form.