Monday, 20 February 2017

The perception process

Perception is how we make sense out of our world through selecting, organising, and interpreting the data that comes to us and turn it into information.

Our senses are our data collectors, with perceptual selection taking place as a result of our experience and physiology shaping what type of data we rely on most, and what we tend to discount.

We are continuously observing the world around us, and selecting what data is important. It is a never-ending process. We look at factors outside ourselves, such as how big a data set is, how intense it is, how much it contrasts with what else is going on around us, how fast or slow or still it is, whether it repeats, if it is new or familiar to us. We also monitor what is going on inside of ourselves, considering our personality, what we have learned, our experiences, and our intrinsic motivation. 

This is one of the reasons why completely new situations are extremely tiring: we are unable to use any filters, short-cuts or experience. Everything must be processed.

We then have to organise all our data, to start to turn it into information. We cluster input, starting to form patterns, looking for outliers, seeking danger, the mundane, the familiar and the new. We look for whether things have continuity, we try to tidy things away neatly so we no longer have to worry about them (closure), watch out for how close things are to us, and for input that is similar to past experiences or learning.

We now have data ready to apply. We have to interpret what it means to us. This is where we can get perceptual distortions, or errors in judgement. These happen because our perceptual process has been mis-informed or was inaccurate. We can project, or see our own characteristics in others (when they aren't); and get perceptual defence, where we protect our mental models by avoiding ideas, situations, or people which contrast with our own beliefs... or that are unpleasant for us. We stereotype, we use the halo effect, and expectancy. These are, as we know, all biases that can blind us to what is going on, unless we are aware and factor them in.

Then we firm up our patterns, linking events in an 'if this, then this' way, or making "attributions". We humans are very good at concluding what has caused behaviours, actions or situations. Sometimes we are on target: sometimes we are so off-beam as to be embarrassing. We need to weigh internal and external factors, and look for reasons - causal factors - for what is happening. 

Then, at long last, we get to make our response based on our own personality, beliefs, attitudes, feelings, motivation and behaviour. Our response may be overt (behaviour) - such as a reply to a question; or covert (personality, beliefs, attitudes, feelings and motivation) - a suppressed yawn so to not show that the meeting has gone on far too long.

And we do this millions of times a day. Non-stop.

That is why anything that shortcuts the process - like stereotyping, halo effect, going on auto-pilot - is so attractive. It saves us heaps of energy. As our brain consumes about 20% of our calories, it is highly seductive to opt out of thinking for ourselves, and drop into passivity and uncritical thinking.

We must fight it. Instead we can think of the calorie burn, and work to ensure that we perceive the world as accurately as we can.


  • Daft, Richard L. (2008). The Leadership Experience (Fourth Edition). USA: Thomson-South Western.
  • Hellriegel, D., Jackson, S., & Slocum, J. (1999). Management. USA: International Thomson Publishing.

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