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.
The brain then uses the perception process to organize and interpret information, such as recognizing the fruit as an apple due to its color, shape, and texture and retrieving knowledge of its taste and nutritional value
Perception allows us to interact with and respond appropriately to our surroundings. So, it is crucial in shaping our understanding and interactions with the world we inhabit.
Definition of Perception
Perception is a fundamental psychological concept that refers to how sensory information is organized, interpreted, and consciously experienced.
According to Eshetu (2015),
“…perception is our sensory experience of the world around us and involves both the recognition of environmental stimuli, through which we gain information about properties and elements of the environment that are critical to our survival” (p. 45).
The process relates to perceiving, identifying, and interpreting sensory input coming from the environment through our five senses: touch, vision, hearing, smell, and taste.
Additionally, it involves proprioception, which is our sense of bodily awareness and posture (Han et al., 2016). As Albright (2015) notes:
“In the words of British associationist John Stuart Mill, “perception reflects the permanent possibilities of sensation” – things as they were or might be–and in doing so reclaims from evanescent sensory events the enduring structural and relational properties of the world” (Albright, 2015, p. 22).
Perception is critical in psychology because it significantly affects our behavior, emotions, and cognitive processes.
Human perception of the world shapes our beliefs, attitudes, and values. This sense-making process leads to better understanding of the environment around us.
Types of Perception Processing
There are two key ways we process information that we perceive: bottom-up processing and top-down processing.
- Bottom-up Processing: This refers to processing sensory information from the raw environment in the brain. See examples of bottom-up processing here.
- Top-down Processing: This involves using prior knowledge, memories, experiences, or expectations to interpret and understand sensory information (Stokes, 2015). See examples of top-down processing here.
10 Examples of Perception
- Selective attention: Selective attention refers to the ability to focus on certain environmental stimuli of most importance to you while ignoring others that you perceive to be irrelevant. For example, when reading a book, you might block out the sound of traffic so you can dedicate your cognitive load to comprehending the book.
- Gestalt principles: Gestalt principles are perceptual guidelines that describe how we organize sensory information into meaningful wholes. The principle of proximity, for example, states that we tend to group objects close to each other into a single unit. The principle of closure states that we tend to fill in gaps in incomplete figures to create a complete perception. Other gestalt principles include continuity, connectedness, and similarity.
- Illusions: Illusions are perceptual experiences that are deceptive, because they don’t match the physical reality of the stimulus. For example, the Müller-Lyer illusion is a visual illusion in which two lines of identical length are perceived as different lengths when arrowheads are added to the end of the lines, making one line appear shorter.
- Multisensory perception: Our brain has the ability to perceive multiple senses at once. This helps to triangulate messages from the senses to ensure our perception of reality is accurate. For instance, watching someone’s lips move while hearing speech can give secondary confirmation that we’re hearing them correctly.
- Stereotyping: Stereotyping is a cognitive bias that involves making assumptions about someone’s character or behavior based on our pre-existing beliefs about their identity group. These tend to be flawed because they focus on our expectations of someone rather than reality.
- Confirmation bias: Like stereotyping, confirmation bias relies on past experiences to perceive the world. It occurs when people already have a certain belief, and they then interpret new information in a way that supports their belief, even if it’s not congruent with reality. Often, when relying on confirmation bias, we disregard or overlook data that is inconsistent with our expectations.
- Placebo effects: Simply believing that a treatment is effective can make it more effective, even if it is a placebo. Studies have shown that placebos can effectively treat everything from pain and anxiety to depression.
- Attentional bias: When people are primed by certain cues, like seeing a photograph of a certain food, they may be more likely to pay attention to similar environmental cues.
- Halo effect: People often perceive others positively or negatively based on a single trait or action. For example, someone physically attractive may be perceived as more intelligent or competent.
- Emotion perception: Individuals can perceive the emotions of others by analyzing their facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. This is a crucial aspect of social interaction, allowing people to understand each other’s feelings and motivations.
Types of Perception
To interpret the surrounding environment, different kinds of sensory information are utilized. So, perception can be of different types – from visual to cross-modal.
Here is a detailed list of the different types of perception:
- Visual Perception: This type of perception is related to the ability to interpret and utilize visual data. Visual perception encompasses interpreting colors, patterns, shapes, light, distance, and movement, allowing individuals to understand and navigate the environment.
- Auditory Perception: Auditory processing or perception is the interpretation, understanding, and utilization of sounds, words, and other auditory stimuli. It includes recognizing pitch, tone, volume, rhythm, and melody.
- Tactile Perception: This type of perception involves the sense of touch, which includes detecting texture, temperature, pressure, and pain sensations.
- Gustatory Perception: Gustatory perception is an individual’s ability to detect different tastes, including salty, bitter, sweet, sour, and umami. The receptors in our taste buds interpret the chemical composition of food so the brain can comprehend and process the taste.
- Olfactory Perception: Olfactory perception relates to interpreting and comprehending various smells, including chemical signals and aromas. The ability of an individual to recognize and distinguish between different smells is crucial for survival (for example, in avoiding rotten food).
- Social Perception: Social perception refers to a person’s capability to a situation or individual and reacts accordingly. It includes interpreting and responding to socially significant cues such as facial expressions, eye contact, tone of voice, or choice of words.
- Person Perception: This type of perception goes beyond social perception and involves constructing and maintaining one’s impressions of others. Person perception focuses on interpreting and evaluating someone’s personality traits and characteristics.
- Depth Perception: This perception contributes to an individual’s ability to perceive the spatial orientation of objects, including distance, height, and depth. This perception allows one to reach or throw things accurately and coordinate movement.
- Motion Perception: Motion perceptions are the ability of an individual to perceive movement in the environment accurately. This perception helps track moving objects in the visual field, effectively navigates, and avoids collisions.
- Cross-Modal Perception: This type of perception combines information from multiple modalities into a coherent and comprehensive perception of the environment. Cross-modal perception is essential when the senses need to work together (for example, in speech perception, where you’re processing both auditory and visual information).
Theories of Perception in the Field of Psychology
There are several perception theories in the field of psychology. Three of the most influential ones are those proposed by Jerome Bruner, James Gibson, and Richard Gregory.
1. Jerome Bruner’s Perception Theory
Bruner proposed a theory that suggests people follow certain processes before they reach conclusions about what they have observed.
As a result, they receive different information cues to ultimately define an object (Bruner & Goodman, 1947).
This process continues until they encounter a familiar cue, at which point their mind categorizes the object.
If the cues are distorted or do not fit into their initial perceptions, they tend to forget or ignore those images, and a consistent picture is formed in their mind.
2. James Gibson’s Perception Theory
Gibson’s philosophy of the direct theory of perception is also called the “bottom-up” theory, the “ecological theory,” and the “central idea” theory.
According to this theory, perception can be explained entirely based on the environment, starting with a sensory stimulus that travels from the eye’s retina to the visual cortex (Costall, 1984).
At every step of the process, the eyes transmit signals to the brain to further examine the image. This continues until a conclusion is reached about the nature of the object’s scent, taste, sound, appearance, or texture.
Gibson’s direct theory of perception suggests that what you perceive is the actual reality without additional processing of information about size, shape, distance, or any other aspects (Costall, 1984).
In this theory, a single instance of perception is enough to interact with the environment effectively.
3. Richard Gregory’s Perception Theory
Gregory proposed a theory of perception based on the idea that perception is an active process that involves the creation of hypotheses to explain sensory data.
He believed that the brain uses a process of “top-down” processing to interpret sensory information, where higher-level cognitive processes such as memory and attention influence how we perceive sensory data (Land & Heard, 2018).
For example, when we see the word “cat,” our prior knowledge of what a cat is and looks like influences our interpretation of the visual stimulus.
Factors Influencing Perception
Perception can be influenced by many factors, but the most common ones are human attention, past experiences, and cultural differences (Stokes, 2015).
The following are the different factors influencing perception in psychology:
- Attention: Our perception is influenced by our ability to attend to certain stimuli while filtering out others selectively. For example, when reading a book, we selectively attend to the words on the page while ignoring other sensory information.
- Past Experiences: Our past experiences shape our perception of the world around us. These experiences may lead us to interpret certain stimuli differently from others. For example, a good experience with dogs often results in seeing them as friendly and approachable. Alternatively, if somebody has a negative encounter, dogs may appear hazardous and intimidating to them.
- Culture: Different cultures have unique values, norms, and beliefs that shape their world perception. For example, some cultures may emphasize individualism more, while others may value collectivism. These cultural differences can influence the way individuals perceive situations and objects.
- Thinking Processes: Psychologists believe that people’s thinking processes are influenced by their cultural backgrounds, individual belief systems, and even the language they speak (known as the Sapir-Wharf hypothesis).
To check if your perception is correct, you can use strategies like perception checking, where you literally ask people whether you understood them correctly, or (indirectly) look for other stimuli that can help you be sure that you perceived things correctly.
(Note: the cognitive processes involved in interpreting data and placing them in categories are explained by Piaget’s cognitive theory, and involve the processes of assimilation, accommodation, and developing cognitive schemata).
Perception is a complex and dynamic process essential for making sense of the world around us.
The process entails detecting and interpreting sensory information from various sources comprising touch, sight, taste, smell, and sound along with our sense of body awareness and position.
Attention bias, past experiences, and culture are among the various factors that shape our perception.
Such understanding of the perception process is essential in helping psychologists understand how humans interact with their environment.
In turn, this can provide valuable insight into the development of effective interventions and therapies for a variety of mental health disorders.
Albright, T. D. (2015). Perceiving. Daedalus, 144(1), 22–41. https://doi.org/10.1162/daed_a_00315
Bruner, J. S., & Goodman, C. C. (1947). Value and need as organizing factors in perception. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 42(1), 33–44. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0058484
Costall, A. P. (1984). Are theories of perception necessary? A review of Gibson’s the ecological approach to visual perception. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 41(1), 109–115. https://doi.org/10.1901/jeab.1984.41-109
Eshetu, G. (2015). Factors affecting instructional leaders perception towards educational media utilization in classroom teaching. Anchor Academic Publishing.
Han, J., Waddington, G., Adams, R., Anson, J., & Liu, Y. (2016). Assessing proprioception: A critical review of methods. Journal of Sport and Health Science, 5(1), 80–90. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jshs.2014.10.004
Land, M. F., & Heard, P. (2018). Richard Langton Gregory. 24 July 1923—17 May 2010. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 64, 163–182. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsbm.2017.0034
Stokes, D. (2015). Perception and its modalities. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]