Perception: The active process of selecting, organizing, and interpreting people, objects, events, situations, and activities.

I. SELECTION: Choosing what to pay attention to

  • We tend to notice things that stand out
  • Change draws our attention

II. ORGANIZATION: using schemata to sort and arrange what we perceive

  • Prototypes: The ideal for a category (your idea of the perfect teacher, partner, car, etc.)
  • Personal Constructs: Mental yardsticks that allow us to measure people and situations along binaries
    • smart-dumb
    • pretty-ugly
    • kind-mean
    • funny-boring
  • Stereotypes: Predictive generalizations about people and situations
    • Can be accurate or inaccurate
    • They are selective and subjective (they change and are not always the same)
  • Scripts: Sequence of activities that define what we and others are expected to do in specific situations
    • “Hi, how are you?”
      “I’m fine! And you?”
    • “I love you!”
      “I love you too!” *smooch*
    • Abnormal script:
      “I love you…”
      “Pass the potatoes”

III. INTERPRETATION: Creating explanations for what we observe and experience.

  • Internal Locus of Control: Interpreting people’s behavior as a result of internal factors
    • He’s angry because he’s hungry
    • She bought me a coffee because she is a  sweet person
    • Borger is cranky because she is tired
    • That student is failing because he is lazy
  • External Locus of Control: Interpreting people’s behavior as a result of external factors
    • He’s angry because he was stuck in a traffic jam
    • She bought me coffee because she had extra time today
    • Borger is cranky because her students have been acting up all day
    • That student is failing because his mother is in the hospital
  • Self-Serving Bias: We tend to explain or interpret other’s behaviors in order to serve our own personal interests
    • We think good results come from our own actions
      • I got an “A” on that test because I am smart!
      • The electricity stayed on because I pay my bills on time!
    • We think negative results come from external factors beyond our control
      • I got an “F” on that test because the teacher hates me!
      • The electricity got turned off because the stupid mailman doesn’t come until the afternoon and he wouldn’t take a bill that didn’t have a stamp on it!

Factors that Influence Perception:

  1. Physiological Factors: The five senses are not the same for all of us: one person’s music might make another’s “bleed.” Or, being angry, tired, hungry, etc. can turn a joke into an insult.
  2. Expectations: What you expect from people and situations can affect your perceptions: kids being loud and social in class might look chaotic if you expect students to sit passively and quietly in class.
  3. Person-Centeredness:  Avoid stereotyping and try to perceive people as unique individuals.   Adolescents might not be able to control their emotions at times, but assuming they all act crazy all the time is unfair to the individual members of that group.
  4. Cognitive Abilities: Cognition refers to our knowledge base and how elaborately we think about situations and people. The more knowledge and experiences you have, them ore flexible you are at in interpreting complex situations. Less cognitively complex individuals ignore information that doesn’t fit their expectations.
  5. Social Roles: The social roles you play in certain situations affect your perceptions: Teacher vs. Student; Doctor vs. Patient; Police Officer vs. Criminal; Boss vs. Employee
  6. Cultural Factors: Culture consists of the beliefs, values, understandings, practices, and ways of interpreting experiences that a number of people share.

Ways to Develop Your Perceptions:

  1. Avoid Mind Reading: Don’t assume you know what someone else thinks or feels; that can lead to assumptions and misinterpretations
  2. Check perceptions with others: Using “I” language can help people come to mutual understandings (“I feel like you are ignoring me when…” vs. “You’re selfish and don’t care about me!”
  3. Distinguish facts from inferences: An inference is when interpretation goes beyond what you know to be a fact.  For example, a teacher can infer that a student who comes to class and sleeps is lazy and rude.  Or, the teacher could ask a question to find out the facts, that the student does not get much food to eat at home and is fatigued as a result.
  4. Monitor your self-serving bias: Are you using external and internal locus of control when interpreting your behaviors or the behaviors of others?

Notes adapted from: Wood, Julia T. “Adapting Communication to People and Contexts.” Communication Mosaics: A New Introduction to the Field of Communication – Custom Published for Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.Belmont: Wadsworth, 1998.