2.1 Perception Process

Perception is the process of selecting, organizing, and interpreting information. This process includes the perception of select stimuli that pass through our perceptual filters, are organized into our existing structures and patterns, and are then interpreted based on previous experiences. Although perception is a largely cognitive and psychological process, how we perceive the people and objects around us affects our communication. We respond differently to an object or person that we perceive favorably than we do to something we find unfavorable. But how do we filter through the mass amounts of incoming information, organize it, and make meaning from what makes it through our perceptual filters and into our social realities?

Selecting Information

We take in information through all five of our senses, but our perceptual field (the world around us) includes so many stimuli that it is impossible for our brains to process and make sense of it all. So as information comes in through our senses, various factors influence what actually continues on through the perception process (Fiske and Taylor). Selecting is the first part of the perception process, in which we focus our attention on certain incoming sensory information. Think about how, out of many other possible stimuli to pay attention to, you may hear a familiar voice in the hallway, see a pair of shoes you want to buy from across the mall, or smell something cooking for dinner when you get home from work. We quickly cut through and push to the background all kinds of sights, smells, sounds, and other stimuli, but how do we decide what to select and what to leave out?

A chart that shows: Selection to organization to interpretation
The Perception Process. Image by Lumen Learning is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA

We tend to pay attention to information that is salient. Salience is the degree to which something attracts our attention in a particular context. The thing attracting our attention can be abstract, like a concept, or concrete, like an object. For example, a person’s identity as a Native American may become salient when they are protesting at the Columbus Day parade in Denver, Colorado. Or a bright flashlight shining in your face while camping at night is sure to be salient. The degree of salience depends on three features (Fiske and Taylor, 186). We tend to find salient things that are visually or aurally stimulating and things that meet our needs or interests. Lastly, expectations affect what we find salient.

Organizing Information

Organizing is the second part of the perception process, in which we sort and categorize information that we perceive based on innate and learned cognitive patterns called schemata. There are four types of these schemata: prototypes, personal construct, stereotypes, and scripts. One or all of these tools can be used to organize our perceptions in a meaningful way.

The first of the schemata is known as a prototype. A prototype defines the clearest or most representative examples of some category. It is an ideal or best example of a particular category. Stating that a particular person would make the ideal friend, or that someone is the perfect worker, are both means of prototyping. We classify people by the category that most represents them. Then we consider how well they measure up. The second schemata, personal construct, allows us to measure people and situations. We do so usually after we generalize people into their category or stereotype. Then we make judgments in a limited manner, and our perception may not include nonhighlighted qualities. Thus, we are reminded that the processes of selecting and organizing interact to affect our perception.

The third schemata, known as stereotyping, is the process of predicting generalizations of people and situations. It is very widely used and can be negative as well as positive. However, it is rarely a completely accurate form of measure. Finally, the last schemata is known as a script. A script is a sequence of activities that spells out how we and others are expected to act in a specific situation. We follow these scripts when someone says hello, when we date, when we are at church, and in many other situations. We have been trained by our environment to follow certain paths that can be constructive, destructive, or both.

The organization of what we select to interpret has a very large influence on our perception. The different environments that we have lived in throughout our lives will always influence our insight. All four cognitive schemata are ever-changing based on new environments and how open we are to new ideas. The ability to understand that we cannot possibly have a complete understanding of people in this world is crucial to the interpretation process. Only if we realize that we change with every input of information, with every bite of food, with every breath of air can we understand that cognitive schemata are ever-changing. Therefore, we must revisit regularly how we organize our perceptions constantly and replace what we have thought to be true with what we have learned to be true.

Interpreting Information

Although selecting and organizing incoming stimuli happens very quickly, and sometimes without much conscious thought, interpretation can be a much more deliberate and conscious step in the perception process. Interpretation is the third part of the perception process, in which we assign meaning to our experiences using schemata. Schemata are like databases of stored, related information that we use to interpret new experiences. We all have fairly complicated schema that have developed over time as small units of information combine to make more meaningful complexes of information.

We have an overall schema about education and how to interpret experiences with teachers and classmates. This schema started developing before we even went to preschool based on things that parents, peers, and the media told us about school. For example, you learned that certain symbols and objects like an apple, a ruler, a calculator, and a notebook are associated with being a student or teacher. You learned new concepts like grades and recess, and you engaged in new practices like doing homework, studying, and taking tests. You also formed new relationships with teachers, administrators, and classmates. As you progressed through your education, your schemata adapted to the changing environment. How smooth or troubling schema reevaluation and revision are varies from situation to situation and person to person. For example, some students adapt their schema relatively easily as they move from elementary, to middle, to high school, and on to college and are faced with new expectations for behavior and academic engagement. Other students don’t adapt as easily, and holding on to their old schema creates problems as they try to interpret new information through old, incompatible schema.

We’ve all been in a similar situation at some point in our lives, so we know that revising our schema can be stressful and that such revision takes effort and usually involves some mistakes, disappointments, and frustrations. But being able to adapt our schema is a sign of cognitive complexity, which is an important part of communication competence. So even though the process may be challenging, it can also be a time for learning and growth.

It’s important to be aware of schema because our interpretations affect our behavior. For example, if you are doing a group project for class and you perceive a group member to be shy based on your schema of how shy people communicate, you may avoid giving him presentation responsibilities in your group project because you do not think shy people make good public speakers. Schemata also guide our interactions, providing a script for our behaviors. We know, in general, how to act and communicate in a waiting room, in a classroom, on a first date, and on a game show. Even a person who has never been on a game show can develop a schema for how to act in that environment by watching The Price Is Right, for example. People go to great lengths to make shirts with clever sayings or act enthusiastically in hopes of being picked to be a part of the studio audience and hopefully become a contestant on the show.

As we have seen, schemata are used to interpret others’ behavior and form impressions about who they are as a person. To help this process along, we often solicit information from people to help us place them into a preexisting schema. In the United States and many other Western cultures, people’s identities are often closely tied to what they do for a living. When we introduce others, or ourselves, occupation is usually one of the first things we mention. Think about how your communication with someone might differ if he or she were introduced to you as an artist versus a doctor. We make similar interpretations based on where people are from, their age, their race, and other social and cultural factors. We will learn more about how culture, gender, and other factors influence our perceptions as we continue through the chapter. In summary, we have schemata about individuals, groups, places, and things, and these schemata filter our perceptions before, during, and after interactions. As schemata are retrieved from memory, they are executed, like computer programs or apps on your smartphone, to help us interpret the world around us. Just like computer programs and apps must be regularly updated to improve their functioning, competent communicators update and adapt their schemata as they have new experiences.

Summary of Perception Process

Perception is the process of selecting, organizing, and interpreting information. This process affects our communication because we respond to stimuli differently, whether they are objects or persons, based on how we perceive them. Given the massive amounts of stimuli taken in by our senses, we only select a portion of the incoming information to organize and interpret. We select information based on salience. We tend to find salient things that are visually or aurally stimulating and things that meet our needs and interests. Expectations also influence what information we select. We organize information that we select into patterns based on proximity, similarity, and difference. We interpret information using schemata, which allow us to assign meaning to information based on accumulated knowledge and previous experience.



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