Definition, Characteristics and Factors Affecting Perception


Definition, Characteristics and Factors Affecting  Perception

Definition of Perception 

Like most concepts within the social science disciplines, perception (or what other scholars refer to as social perception) has been defined in a variety of ways since its first usage. From the lay man’s perspective, perception is defined as an act of being aware of “one’s environment through physical sensation, which denotes an individual’s ability to understand”. However, many social psychologists have tended to develop the concept around one of its most essential characteristics that the world around us is not psychologically uniform to all individuals. This is the fact, in all probability, that accounts for the difference in the opinions and actions of individuals/groups that are exposed to the same social phenomenon.

At this point, it is important for you to take a look at some of these definitions in order to better appreciate the point being made here:

Social perception is the process of interpreting information about another person.  What this definition has clearly highlighted for your attention is that the opinions you form about another person depends on the amount of information available to you and the extent to which you are able to correctly interpret the information you have acquired. In other words, you may be in possession of the same set of information that other people have on a particular situation, person or group but still arrive at different conclusions due to individual differences in the capacity to interpret the information that you all have.

Obviously share the main characteristics of the above definition. However, they emphasize that perception ranks among the “important cognitive factors of human behavior” or psychological mechanism that enable people to understand their environment. In their own words, “perception is the process whereby people select, organize, and interpret sensory stimulations into meaningful information about their work environment.” They argue that perception is the single most important determinant of human behavior, stating further that “there can be no behaviour without perception.” Though focusing on managers in work settings, Rao and Narayan draw attention to the fact that since there are no specific strategies for understanding the perception of others, everyone appears to be “left with his own inventiveness, innovative ability, sensitiveness and introspective skills to deal with perception.” From a third perspective “social perception refers to constructing an understanding of the social world from the data we get through our senses”. Thus, perception “refers to the process by which we form impressions of other people’s traits and personalities.” You may have noticed that by referring to “our senses” as the means of data collection the authors may have placed too much emphasis on its perception component, which the first two definitions clearly avoided.

In other to shed more light on this concept it is important for you to pay attention to the following elements of the above definitions of perception:

1. Our attention, feelings and the way we act are influenced by our environment.

2. Perception helps you to gather data from your surroundings process the data and make sense out of it.

3. In perception it is sometimes difficult to separate the information from the action.

4. It is basically a process of gaining mental understanding.

5. Perception guides the perceiver in harnessing, processing and channeling relevant information towards fulfilling the perceiver’s requirements.


Characteristics of Perception

The concise explanation of the three major characteristics that influence our perception of other people is as following:

1. Perceivers-Specific Characteristics: One of the perceivers-specific factors that influence perception is familiarity with the object of perception. Familiarity implies that, compared to others, we are better positioned to make observations leading to better relative ability to arrive at superior decisions about a particular situation. However, you must note that for you to perceive someone accurately you must have generated accurate data on that person during the stage of observation. This is because the relationship between familiarity and accuracy is not always direct. “Sometimes when we know a person well, we tend to screen out information that is inconsistent with what we believe the person is like”, which constitutes a major danger in performance appraisals. Another factor that influences social perception is the perceiver’s attitude. For instance, since no woman has ruled Nigeria since its independence in 1960, you are likely to develop the attitude that women are incapable of handling the challenges of leading this country, which has no empirical foundation. Our mood is another important factor that affects the way we perceive others. Generally, the difference in our reaction to situations is a function of the state of happiness or sadness in which we find ourselves, (i.e. our moods). Thus, we tend to more easily remember information that identify with our moods than those that do not. Accordingly, whenever we are in negative moods we generally tend to form negative impressions of others.

The self-concept of the perceiver is also a critical determinant of perception. Basically, people that possess positive self-concepts tend to perceive positive attributes in other people, while, those with negative self-concepts tend to perceive negative attributes in others. Therefore, greater understanding of self allows us to have more accurate perception of others.

The cognitive structure, that is, a person’s thought pattern of thinking equally determines his/her perception in significant ways. While some individuals are inclined to perceiving physical characteristics such as height, weight, and appearance others pay more attention to central traits or personality dispositions. However, there are people that are capable of perceiving all these traits at the same time instead of focusing on only one aspect.

2. Target-Specific Characteristics: Social perception is also influenced by certain characteristics that are specific to the person being perceived (i.e. the target). One of the most important target-specific characteristics is the physical appearance of the perceived. Some of these characteristics include height, weight, estimated age, race and gender. In addition, the way you dress speaks volume about the way you are perceived. More importantly, perceivers find it easier to pick out those appearance traits that are unusual or new. Common examples of unusual personality traits include a very tall person, an energetic child as well as newcomers within a community. Verbal communications out of which perceivers assess a target’s voice tone, accent and related factors also affect his/her perception. Furthermore, the nonverbal Communication contains a lot of information through which an individual is perceived. Eye contact, facial expressions, body movements and posture are features that guide the perceiver’s impression of the target. But, while facial impressions tend to convey general meanings, nonverbal communication poses a challenge of having different meanings in different cultures.

Mention must also be made of the role of the intentions of the target as inferred by the perceiver. More often than not, we quickly infer that our creditors have come to demand payment for debts we owe to them whenever they appear at our doorsteps.

However, this is not always the case as he has come ask you to render him an advice in your area of professional competence.

3. Situation-Specific Characteristics: This is a very significant factor that affects the impression that is formed about someone by an individual. In other words, the Social context of the interaction is a major influence. For instance, anybody that interacts with the Chief executive of a bank in a political rally would certainly go away with a different impression of him/her compared to meeting him in his/her bank office. “In Japan, social context is very important. Business discussions after working hours are or at lunch are taboos. If you try to talk business during these times, you may be perceived as rude.” The strength of situational cues often provides clear indications of behavior that are acceptable within certain environmental contexts. Thus, there are particular situations that influence the behaviour of an individual, which do not necessarily affect the disposition of that individual. This is what is referred to as the discounting principle in social perception.

An illustration of this principle is when you come in contact with a sociable bank marketing officer that goes ahead to find out about your pastime, and knowledge of service delivery in the Nigerian banking industry. Would then be correct to attribute this behavior to the marketing officer’s personality? You may not attribute this to his/her personality “because of the influence of the situation.”

Basically, in this context, this person is prospecting for customers to whom he intends to introduce the services of his/her bank.


Model of Social Perception

Characteristics of the Perceiver

• Familiarity with target

• Attitudes / Moods

• Self-Concept

• Cognitive structure

Characteristics of the target

• Physical appearance

• Verbal communication

• Nonverbal cues

• Intentions


Selective perception


First-impression error

Implicit personality theory

Self-fulfilling prophecy

Characteristics of the situation

• Context of the interaction

• Strength of situational


The Perceptual Process

Generally, the quality of input that a process attracts determines the quality of output that the process gives out. Correspondingly, “the perceptual inputs are first received, and then processed by the perceiver and the resultant output becomes the lease of the behavior.”

Perceptual Process





People, etc.







Feeling, etc.

Variables in the perceptual process:

Inputs: Perceived inputs are the objects, events, people, etc. that are received by the perceiver.

Process: The received inputs are processed through selection, organization and interpretation.

Outputs: Through the processing mechanism, the output (feelings, actions, attitudes, etc.) is derived.

Behavior: Behavior is dependent on these perceived outputs. The perceiver’s behavior, in turn, generates responses from the perceived and these responses give rise to a new set of inputs.

The Perceptual Mechanism

The perceptual process operates regularly “between us and reality” through three well established perceptual mechanisms. These mechanisms are referred to as the process of selection, organization and interpretation.

1. Perceptual Selection: This process occurs because the perceiver cannot absolve everything that he/she observes about an individual or group of people. Considering that the perceiver is exposed to numerous stimuli, his/her first basic approach to the perceptual process is to select those stimuli that he/she considers relevant. You should note that the selection process is stimulated by the fact that no individual is capable of assimilating all his/her observations, rather, they prefer to use only those details that they consider relevant to avoid perceptual overload.

Basically, the process of selecting the relevant information is shaped by such factors as the individuals “interests, background, experience, and attitudes of the perceiver.” Though this process of “selective perception” enables us to “speed read” other people, it however has the risk of producing incorrect perceptions. Though there is the tendency for people to perceive others in predetermined ways, things that are bright and unusual tend to be more easily perceived than those things that are dull and familiar. For example, it is not unusual for parents to single out their children from a multitude “before others enter into their field of perception.”

In a study conducted by Dearborn and Simon, they observed that managers of the various departments in an organization tended to highlight the problems of their departments as the most central. People therefore tend to priorities their own problems as the most important under any circumstance. “Individuals select the information that is supportive and satisfying” or the information they rate as the most important. Two basic principles are involved in selective perceptions:

2. Figure Group Principle: This principle enables a perceiver to distinguish factors that are significant for further study from those factors that are insignificant and accordingly abandoned. While the meaningful/significant details are referred to as the “figure”, the seemingly meaningless/insignificant portions are classified as the ground. But more importantly Rao and Narayana argue that “what becomes group or what becomes figure is largely influenced by our needs and expectations.

3. Relevancy: Generally, perceivers tend to perceive those things that not only satisfy their “needs and desires” they pay less attention to or completely ignore those that threaten these needs and desire. Events that affect those people who are close to us appear to be of interest to us as against events that are not.

4. Perceptual Organization: This refers to the way in which the perceiver organizes the information he receives into “meaningful pictures to the perceiver. Organizing the information that is incoming into a meaningful whole called organization. This process is also called gestalt.” (i.e. organizational) process.” In order to accomplish the process of organization the perceiver has to embark on grouping, closure and simplification that are expatiated hereunder:

a. Grouping: Under this process, people and events are “grouped on the basis of similarly or proximity.” Thus, similar events are classified and perceived as a group. Similarly, “objects that have close proximity are also grouped under one head howsoever they unrelated. But perceptual distortion can occur when people who relate in only certain ways are grouped.

b. Closure: The tendency for people to “fill in the missing gaps”, in a stimuli in order to make it more meaningful is known as closure. This simply means organizing the perpetual stimuli to form a complete message

c. Simplification: Whenever perceivers receive an information overload, they strive to simplify then for better understanding. This is done so that the perceived world will not continue to remain meaningless. “Simplification is an important step because in its absence, received stimuli remain complicated to the perceiver.

5. Perceptual Interpretation: This is perhaps the most crucial component of the perceptual mechanism process. This process is undertaken to create meaning out of the perceived world. “Interpretation is subjective and judgmental process.” Interpretation is influenced by the following factors:

a. Halo Effect: This is the process of arriving at a general conclusion from the analysis of a single personality trait. This is because; a single trait is thought to “override the characteristics of the individual.” Halo effect is a snap shot approach to perceiving speedily. Understandably, this process is usually more often wrong than right.”

b. Stereotyping: When you draw conclusions about a person based on his/her belonging to a group, you are simply stereotyping. That is, you are situating people into categories based on their ethnic, occupational or characteristics. Stereotyping is common in Nigeria where we associate individuals of certain ethnic origin with certain behavior or traits. Stereotyping helps the perceiver to quickly simplify a complex world of information. But at obstructs the perceiver from giving vent to the capabilities of an individual. May not always certain the actual facts that informs the basis of judging others.

c. Attribution: This is that attachment of cause-and-effects to the character of an individual. Thus, “the more the particular action is attributable to the behavior the more is the intensity of perceptual judgment by a manager” (i.e. a perceiver. Attribution is unique in perception because it makes room for behaviors that are similar to be viewed differently. For example, two people that are guilty of the same kind of crime can respectively implicate poverty and peer group influence for their actions. The status of people is another factor that affects attribution. For instance, while the overtime work of a senior management staff in an organization to prepare the budget for the following year may attract favorable commendation, that of a junior personnel could be attributed to monetary motivation.

d. Impression: On a daily basis, people form impressions about other people that they are probably meeting for the first time in their lives. Often these impressions are formed with little or next to no knowledge of the character of the perceived, which sometimes results in perceptual inaccuracies. For instance, a trail looking employee may be associated with low productivity whereas the reverse might be the case. Conversely, the well-built staff that is being associated with high result orientation might just be the weak link in the production process. A well-known fact is that first impressions appear to stay longer in the mind of the perceiver unless new facts emerge to counteract them subsequently.

e. Inference: This addresses the common tendencies for perceivers to draw conclusions about others without enough information. For instance, a person working on a computer all day long may be adjudged a focused member of staff by a manager that is matching from afar. But this same person may be chatting on the internet.


Factors Affecting Perception

The perceptual mechanism is basically affected by two factors, namely the internal and external.

I. Internal factors: Amongst the internal factors are:

a. Needs and Desires: Basically the perception of relatively satisfied people differs significantly from those of frustrated individuals. In the words Rao and Narayana “People at different levels of needs and desires perceive the same thing differently.” Furthermore, the expectations, motivations and desires of people also shape their perception of other and situations around them.

b. Personality: Individual characteristic behaviour is another strong influence on what you perceive about that individual. “It is a trite say that optimistic people perceive the things in favorable terms, pessimistic beings in negative terms.” According to Maslow between the optimist and the pessimist exist a category of people who are capable of perceiving others “accurately and objectively.” They sum this issue this issue in the following outline:

- Secure individuals tend to perceive others as warm, not cold.

- Thoughtful individuals do not expose by expressing extreme judgment of others.

- Persons who accept themselves and have faith their individuality perceives things favorably.

- Self-accepting individuals perceive themselves as liked, wanted and accepted by others.

c. Experience: Combined with knowledge, experience has a perpetual impact on the perception of an individual. “Successful experiences enhance and boost the perception ability and lead to accuracy in perception of a person whereas failure erodes self-confidence.”

 II. External Factors: Listed under this sub-head are:

a. Size: Perceptual stimulus of larger sizes has higher chances of being perceived. This is due to the fact that the factor of size is commonly associated with dominance and others to standing out for selection. A straight-forward example is that a full. Page advert catches more attention than those less than a page.

b. Intensity: This factor has to do with promoting the chances of a stimuli being selected. For example, some of the strategies that foster intensity are underlining or bolding or italicizing words in a written text. “The greater the intensity of a stimulus, the more likely it will be noticed.”

c. Frequency: Addresses the attention that accrues from the steady repetition of a particular stimulus. That is, the art of repetition simply attracts our alertness and provost our sensitivity to the message being sent across. The stimulus that is repeated with greater intensity is more likely to qualify for selection as it were.

d. Status: The status of a person being perceived exerts a lot of influences on a perception. Within an organization, highly placed officers expectedly influence employees than persons who occupy lower rings of the organizations hierarchy

e. Contrast: Stimulus that share common features with the environment are less likely to quality for selection by the perceiver compared to those that contrast sharply with the environment. For example, a person that spots riotous colours or dress like father Christmas in June would certainly attract more attention that those that put up normal appearance.

You can see from what we have studied in this page that social perception is a complex phenomenon that derives from the characteristics of the environment, the perceiver, and the perceived. The perceptual process (consisting of inputs, process and output) was also discussed, before it concluded with the internal and external factors affecting perception.

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