What is Perception? – General Psychology (2023)

Sensation and Perception

Learning Objectives

  • Discuss the roles attention, motivation, and sensory adaptation play in perception

While our sensory receptors are constantly collecting information from the environment, it is ultimately how we interpret that information that affects how we interact with the world. refers to the way sensory information is organized, interpreted, and consciously experienced. Perception involves both bottom-up and top-down processing. refers to the fact that perceptions are built from sensory input. On the other hand, how we interpret those sensations is influenced by our available knowledge, our experiences, and our thoughts. This is called .

Look at the shape in Figure 1 below. Seen alone, your brain engages in bottom-up processing. There are two thick vertical lines and three thin horizontal lines. There is no context to give it a specific meaning, so there is no top-down processing involved.

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Now, look at the same shape in two different contexts. Surrounded by sequential letters, your brain expects the shape to be a letter and to complete the sequence. In that context, you perceive the lines to form the shape of the letter “B.”

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Surrounded by numbers, the same shape now looks like the number “13.”

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When given a context, your perception is driven by your cognitive expectations. Now you are processing the shape in a top-down fashion.

One way to think of this concept is that sensation is a physical process, whereas perception is psychological. For example, upon walking into a kitchen and smelling the scent of baking cinnamon rolls, the sensation is the scent receptors detecting the odor of cinnamon, but the perception may be “Mmm, this smells like the bread Grandma used to bake when the family gathered for holidays.”

Although our perceptions are built from sensations, not all sensations result in perception. In fact, we often don’t perceive stimuli that remain relatively constant over prolonged periods of time. This is known as . Imagine entering a classroom with an old analog clock. Upon first entering the room, you can hear the ticking of the clock; as you begin to engage in conversation with classmates or listen to your professor greet the class, you are no longer aware of the ticking. The clock is still ticking, and that information is still affecting sensory receptors of the auditory system. The fact that you no longer perceive the sound demonstrates sensory adaptation and shows that while closely associated, sensation and perception are different.

Attention and Perception

There is another factor that affects sensation and perception: attention. Attention plays a significant role in determining what is sensed versus what is perceived. Imagine you are at a party full of music, chatter, and laughter. You get involved in an interesting conversation with a friend, and you tune out all the background noise. If someone interrupted you to ask what song had just finished playing, you would probably be unable to answer that question.

Watch It

See for yourself how inattentional blindness works by watching this selective attention test from Simons and Chabris (1999):

You can view the transcript for “selective attention test” here (opens in new window).

One of the most interesting demonstrations of how important attention is in determining our perception of the environment occurred in a famous study conducted by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris (1999). In this study, participants watched a video of people dressed in black and white passing basketballs. Participants were asked to count the number of times the team in white passed the ball. During the video, a person dressed in a black gorilla costume walks among the two teams. You would think that someone would notice the gorilla, right? Nearly half of the people who watched the video didn’t notice the gorilla at all, despite the fact that he was clearly visible for nine seconds. Because participants were so focused on the number of times the white team was passing the ball, they completely tuned out other visual information. Failure to notice something that is completely visible because of a lack of attention is called .

In a similar experiment, researchers tested inattentional blindness by asking participants to observe images moving across a computer screen. They were instructed to focus on either white or black objects, disregarding the other color. When a red cross passed across the screen, about one third of subjects did not notice it (Figure 4) (Most, Simons, Scholl, & Chabris, 2000).

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Motivations, Expectations, and Perception

Motivation can also affect perception. Have you ever been expecting a really important phone call and, while taking a shower, you think you hear the phone ringing, only to discover that it is not? If so, then you have experienced how motivation to detect a meaningful stimulus can shift our ability to discriminate between a true sensory stimulus and background noise. The ability to identify a stimulus when it is embedded in a distracting background is called signal detection theory. This might also explain why a mother is awakened by a quiet murmur from her baby but not by other sounds that occur while she is asleep. Signal detection theory has practical applications, such as increasing air traffic controller accuracy. Controllers need to be able to detect planes among many signals (blips) that appear on the radar screen and follow those planes as they move through the sky. In fact, the original work of the researcher who developed signal detection theory was focused on improving the sensitivity of air traffic controllers to plane blips (Swets, 1964).

Our perceptions can also be affected by our beliefs, values, prejudices, expectations, and life experiences. As you will see later in this module, individuals who are deprived of the experience of binocular vision during critical periods of development have trouble perceiving depth (Fawcett, Wang, & Birch, 2005). The shared experiences of people within a given cultural context can have pronounced effects on perception. For example, Marshall Segall, Donald Campbell, and Melville Herskovits (1963) published the results of a multinational study in which they demonstrated that individuals from Western cultures were more prone to experience certain types of visual illusions than individuals from non-Western cultures, and vice versa. One such illusion that Westerners were more likely to experience was the Müller-Lyer illusion (Figure 5): The lines appear to be different lengths, but they are actually the same length.

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These perceptual differences were consistent with differences in the types of environmental features experienced on a regular basis by people in a given cultural context. People in Western cultures, for example, have a perceptual context of buildings with straight lines, what Segall’s study called a carpentered world (Segall et al., 1966). In contrast, people from certain non-Western cultures with an uncarpentered view, such as the Zulu of South Africa, whose villages are made up of round huts arranged in circles, are less susceptible to this illusion (Segall et al., 1999). It is not just vision that is affected by cultural factors. Indeed, research has demonstrated that the ability to identify an odor, and rate its pleasantness and its intensity, varies cross-culturally (Ayabe-Kanamura, Saito, Distel, Martínez-Gómez, & Hudson, 1998).

Children described as thrill seekers are more likely to show taste preferences for intense sour flavors (Liem, Westerbeek, Wolterink, Kok, & de Graaf, 2004), which suggests that basic aspects of personality might affect perception. Furthermore, individuals who hold positive attitudes toward reduced-fat foods are more likely to rate foods labeled as reduced fat as tasting better than people who have less positive attitudes about these products (Aaron, Mela, & Evans, 1994).

Watch It

Review thedifferences between sensation and perception in thisCrashCourse Psychology video:

You can view the transcript for “Sensation and Perception: Crash Course Psychology #5” here (opens in new window).

Think It Over

Think about a time when you failed to notice something around you because your attention was focused elsewhere. If someone pointed it out, were you surprised that you hadn’t noticed it right away?

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What is Perception? – General Psychology? ›

Perception refers to the way sensory information is organized, interpreted, and consciously experienced. Perception involves both bottom-up and top-down processing. Bottom-up processing refers to the fact that perceptions are built from sensory input.

What is perception in psychology with an example? ›

Perception refers to the process of interpreting sensory information in order to comprehend the environment. So, when we come across a red fruit, for instance, sensory data, including the light waves reflected by the fruit, are perceived by our eyes and then sent to the brain.

What is the simple definition of perception? ›

noun. the act or faculty of perceiving, or apprehending by means of the senses or of the mind; cognition; understanding. immediate or intuitive recognition or appreciation, as of moral, psychological, or aesthetic qualities; insight; intuition; discernment: an artist of rare perception.

Who defined perception in psychology? ›

The concept of perception is given by Max Wertheimer.

In the early 20th century, three German psychologists Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Köhler and Kurt Koffka proposed new principles for explaining perception called as Gestalt principle.

What is perception and why is it important? ›

Perception is the interpretation your brain makes based on what you see, hear, smell, feel, taste and the information that is already stored within your memory. Perception is important because it helps you to understand the world around you.

Why is perception important in psychology? ›

Importance of Perception

Perception not only creates our experience of the world around us; it allows us to act within our environment. Perception is very important in understanding human behavior because every person perceives the world and approaches life problems differently.

What is one word to describe perception? ›

Some common synonyms of perception are acumen, discernment, discrimination, insight, and penetration. While all these words mean "a power to see what is not evident to the average mind," perception implies quick and often sympathetic discernment (as of shades of feeling).

What is perception in cognitive psychology? ›

What is perception? Perception is the ability to capture, process, and actively make sense of the information that our senses receive. It is the cognitive process that makes it possible to interpret our surroundings with the stimuli that we receive throughout sensory organs.

What are the factors of perception in psychology? ›

One's attitudes, motivations, expectations, behavior and interests are some of the factors affecting perception.

What is perception in human behavior? ›

By perception, we mean the process by which one screens, selects, organizes, and interprets stimuli to give them meaning. It is a process of making sense out of the environment in order to make an appropriate behavioral response.

What is the characteristic of perception in psychology? ›

Perception involves many attributes, but the three most recognized features of perception include constancy, grouping (particularly the Gestalt principles), and contrast effect.

Is perception reality in psychology? ›

“Perception is merely a lens or mindset from which we view people, events, and things.” In other words, we believe what we perceive to be accurate, and we create our own realities based on those perceptions. And although our perceptions feel very real, that doesn't mean they're necessarily factual. Dr.

Does perception mean opinion? ›

Opinion and perception are two nouns that are used interchangeably by many people. However, there is a subtle difference between opinion and perception. Opinion is a belief, view or judgment; it is what you think. Perception, in contrast, is the way you think.

Is perception a reality? ›

If you dive into the definitions of the two words “perception” and “reality,” you will see that reality excludes perception. Perception: A way of understanding or interpreting things. Reality: The state of things as they actually exist, rather than as they may be perceived or might be imagined.

Is perception a feeling? ›

Perceptions are meaning-making; they help us interpret experience. But feelings are experience. Recognising the difference between when we're actually feeling something instead of perceiving something gives us the power to soothe our discontent.

What are the three stages of perception in psychology? ›

The perception process has three stages: selection, organization, and interpretation (Knudsen, et al., 2021).

What are the 4 stages of the perception process? ›

The perception process consists of four steps: selection, organization, interpretation and negotiation. In the third chapter of our textbook, it defines selection as the stimuli that we choose to attend to.

What is an example of perception to a person? ›

For example, you might form an impression of a city bus driver based on how you would anticipate that a person in that role to behave, considering individual personality characteristics only after you have formed this initial impression. Physical cues can also play an important role.

What are perception action examples? ›

The action-specific perception account holds that people perceive the environment in terms of their ability to act in it. In this view, for example, decreased ability to climb a hill due to fatigue makes the hill visually appear to be steeper.

What is an example of perception effect? ›

For example, if you are dreading getting a flu shot because you believe it will hurt a lot (expectations), once you actually have it done, you may say, “That didn't hurt at all” (perception), because your expectation prepared you beforehand. In other words, our expectations affect our perception after the fact.

What are real life examples of perception psychology? ›

One person may perceive a dog jumping on them as a threat, while another person may perceive this action as the pup just being excited to see them. Our perceptions of people and things are shaped by our prior experiences, our interests, and how carefully we process information.

What are the different types of perception in psychology? ›

The vast topic of perception can be subdivided into visual perception, auditory perception, olfactory perception, haptic (touch) perception, and gustatory (taste) percep- tion.

What is an example of perception and reality? ›

Your reality is only disrupted by factual evidence, for example— you could experience a freezing cold winter day, but your reality is different from the reality of global warming. Your perception could be that winter nights keep getting colder, when the temperature of the Earth is actually steadily increasing.

What does perception mean in human behavior? ›

Perception is how we make sense of our environment in response to environmental stimuli. While perceiving our surroundings, we go beyond the objective information available to us, and our perception is affected by our values, needs, and emotions.

What are some examples of perception in society? ›

Facial expressions, tone of voice, hand gestures, and body position or movement are a few examples of ways people communicate without words. A real-world example of social perception is understanding that others disagree with what one said when one sees them roll their eyes.

What is a sentence example for perception? ›

We have to change the public's perception that money is being wasted. These photographs will affect people's perceptions of war. There is a general perception that exams are becoming easier to pass. It is my perception that his argument was fundamentally flawed.

What is an example of perception in decision making? ›

A manager may perceive non- attendance of duty by the subordinate in a different way. Individuals may also differ in their opinion though the event or situation may be the same. For example, in an organization where lunch is served in a subsidised manner may be interpreted by the employees in a different way.

What factors influence our perception? ›

One's attitudes, motivations, expectations, behavior and interests are some of the factors affecting perception.

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