Selective perception refers to the very human tendency to perceive stimuli subjectively, and often in a way that confirms pre-existing biases.
It operates on two levels:
- When hearing a message, we use our past experiences, beliefs, and worldview to filter the information.
- We choose to hear the messages that are most resonant or important to us, and filter out those which are not.
I’m going to present you with two definitions to start. One is a more formal, psychological definition. The second is colloquial, but helps to get the message across well:
“Selective perception refers to the process of categorizing and interpreting information in a way that favors one category or interpretation over another.” (Shrum, 2015)
“Selective perception theory posits that people perceive whatever they wish to in mediated messages, at the same time paying no attention to opposing viewpoints.” (Matusiz, 2022)
Let’s explore some examples.
Selective Perception Examples
1. Political Bias in News Consumption
A person who strongly identifies with a particular political party or ideology might only watch news channels or read newspapers that align with their views. They might dismiss or overlook information from sources that present opposing viewpoints, even if the information is factual and unbiased.
2. Branding and Consumer Behavior
A consumer who has loyalty to a particular brand might only notice advertisements or promotions related to that brand while shopping, ignoring other competing brands. Even if a competing brand offers a better deal, the consumer’s selective perception might lead them to choose the familiar brand.
3. Stereotyping and First Impressions
If someone has a preconceived notion about a particular group of people, they might only notice behaviors that reinforce their stereotypes and ignore behaviors that contradict them. For example, if someone believes that a particular ethnic group is “lazy,” they might only notice members of that group who are not working hard and overlook those who are industrious.
4. Selective Memory in Relationships
In relationships, one partner might only remember the negative actions of the other partner and forget the positive ones. This selective memory can reinforce negative feelings and perceptions about the relationship, even if there are many positive aspects.
5. Classroom Learning and Confirmation Bias
A student who believes they are “bad at math” might only remember the times they struggled with math problems and forget the times they succeeded. This selective perception can hinder their confidence and ability to learn in the future.
6. Sports Team Loyalty
A devoted fan of a particular sports team might only notice the fouls committed by the opposing team during a game, while overlooking or downplaying similar actions by their own team. This selective perception can lead them to believe that the referees are biased against their team, even if the officiating is fair.
7. Cultural Norms and Beauty Standards
In societies with specific beauty standards, individuals might only notice and value physical attributes that align with those standards, overlooking or devaluing other forms of beauty. For instance, in a culture that values thinness, people might focus more on slender figures and ignore or stigmatize those who don’t fit that mold.
8. Job Performance and Supervisor Bias
A supervisor who has formed a negative opinion about an employee might only notice the mistakes they make, overlooking their accomplishments or contributions. This can lead to unfair evaluations and missed opportunities for the employee.
9. Diet and Food Choices
An individual on a strict diet might only focus on the calorie content of foods, overlooking other nutritional values such as vitamins and minerals. Similarly, a weightlifter might focus so much on getting enough protein that they ignore getting enough greens. This selective perception can lead to an imbalanced diet and potential health issues.
10. Social Media and Echo Chambers
On social media platforms, users often follow and interact with individuals or groups that share their beliefs and interests. This can create an echo chamber where they are only exposed to reinforcing opinions and overlook diverse or opposing views, leading to a narrow perspective.
11. Music Genre Preference
A person who is a fervent fan of classical music might dismiss modern genres like hip-hop or pop as “noise” or “not real music”. They might only notice elements in those genres that reinforce their negative view, while ignoring the artistry and depth present.
12. Environmental Awareness
An individual who doesn’t believe in climate change might only pay attention to information or events that seem to refute global warming, such as a particularly cold winter day, while ignoring broader trends and overwhelming scientific evidence.
13. Health and Medical Treatment
Someone who is deeply skeptical of Western medicine might focus only on the side effects or failures of those treatments, overlooking the numerous successes and the rigorous testing these treatments undergo. This is often exacerbated by social media movements by people like JFK Jr. who exacerbate this with sensationalist claims.
14. Investment and Financial Decisions
An investor convinced that a particular stock or sector is the future might only see news and data points that support their bullish view, ignoring warning signs or negative trends that might suggest otherwise. This is why you often need to work in teams with people of many viewpoints, so you can work together to overcome each other’s biases.
15. Parental Pride and Bias
Parents, proud of their children’s accomplishments, might only notice the successes and positive behaviors of their child, overlooking mistakes or areas of improvement. This can sometimes lead to an inflated or skewed perception of their child’s abilities.
Selective Perception vs Selective Attention
Psychologically, the process of cognitive selection isn’t just about biases and echo chambers. It has an evolutionary purpose. We are inundated with too much information.
To avoid cognitive overload, we only let in the information that we think is most important:
“Because it is impossible for us to assimilate everything we are exposed to, any characteristic that makes a person, an object, or an event stand out will increase the probability that it will be perceived.”(Shrum, 2015)
“Selective perception is a “conservation” technique that is necessary to manage the tremendous number of perceptual inputs available at any one point in time.” (Williams, 2004)
While the above quotes go some way to explaining selective perception, they also overlap with a definition of selective attention. Selective perception goes one step further – in filtering out information based on salience or relevance, we’re using our past experiences and beliefs to only let in information that appear congruent with our pre-existing beliefs, attitudes, and experiences.
- Selective Perception: This refers to the process of perceiving only what we want or expect to perceive from a larger set of stimuli. It involves filtering out certain stimuli and focusing on others based on our pre-existing beliefs, attitudes, and experiences. Factors influencing selective perception include cultural background, personal experiences, emotions, and expectations.
- Selective Attention: This refers to the cognitive process of focusing on one particular stimulus or task while ignoring other irrelevant stimuli. It’s the ability to concentrate on a specific aspect of a situation while disregarding others. Factors influencing selective attention include task difficulty, personal interest, and cognitive load (Wray et al., 2017).
Selective Perception vs Selective Retention
In essence, while both concepts deal with biased processing of information, selective perception is about what we choose to notice and pay attention to, whereas selective retention is about what we choose to remember and recall later on (Ledman & Popowski, 2007).
Both processes can reinforce existing beliefs and limit our exposure to diverse or conflicting viewpoints.
For example, after attending a seminar on healthy eating, a vegetarian might only pay attention to information that benefits of a vegetarian diet (selective perception). Or, if they do take in all the information, they might later forget or downplay that information presented about the benefits of a balanced omnivorous diet (selective retention).
- Selective Perception: Selective perception refers to the process where an individual selectively sees or hears only certain aspects of a stimulus or situation based on their beliefs, attitudes, or previous experiences. It’s about filtering information at the point of exposure. Our cognitive biases, beliefs, past experiences, and attitudes influence what information we choose to focus on and what we ignore.
- Selective Retention: Selective retention involves the memory process where individuals are more likely to recall and retain information that aligns with their existing beliefs, attitudes, and values, while forgetting or disregarding information that contradicts them (Shrum, 2015). It’s about how our cognitive system stores and recalls information. Memories that resonate with our existing beliefs or that evoke strong emotional reactions are more likely to be retained.
Ledman, R. E., & Popowski, S. (2007). From Hiring to Firing: A Practical Guide to Selecting, Motivating and Retaining the Best Employees. Hamilton Books.
Matusitz, J. (2022). Fundamentals of Public Communication Campaigns. Wiley.
Shrum, L. J. (2015). Selective perception and selective retention. In Donsbach, W. (Ed.). The Concise Encyclopedia of Communication. Wiley.
Williams, J. R. (2004). Developing Performance Support for Computer Systems: A Strategy for Maximizing Usability and Learnability. CRC Press.
Wray, H. A., Stevens, C., Pakulak, E., Isbell, E., Bell, T., & Neville, H. (2017). Development of selective attention in preschool-age children from lower socioeconomic status backgrounds. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 26, 101-111. (Source)
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]