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3.2: Perception Process—Parts 1 and 2 (Selection and Organization)

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    Basic Components of the Perception Process

    The perception process has three stages: selection, organization, and interpretation (Knudsen, et al., 2021). As shown in Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\), the perception process is both cognitive and psychological. It can influence how we communicate with ourselves and others. Look at any number of objects around you. What you choose to focus on, how you would describe it, and finally what you think about that object is unique to you. In this section, we walk you through some of the basic components of the perception process. The goal here is to gain a better understanding of how our perceptions are formed, giving us some unique insights into how those impact our interpersonal relationships.

    Perception as a cycle: selection leads to organization, which leads to interpretation, then back to selection
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): The Perception Process by Alex Mata licensed as CC-BY 4.0

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) shows a continuous interaction of the three stages of the perception process. Selection influences organization; organization influences interpretation; interpretation goes back into selection; then the process starts over again.


    The first step in the perception process is selection. To build a foundation for selection, we must first attend to the senses. On any given day, our senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell) are bombarded with stimuli. Because we cannot respond to them all, we will choose what to pay attention to and when. This process is called sensory selection. Sensory selection is a process for determining which stimulus gets our attention. This often occurs subconsciously and with little effort on our behalf (Knudsen, et al. 2021). So in our very busy lives, how do we choose? Let’s dive deeper to see how the selection process is influenced by salience, needs, interests, and expectations to shape our perceptions.


    Salience is a key component of understanding how and why we pay attention to. Salience is defined as anything that attracts our attention (Perception Process, 2020). Based on context, anything from an object, an idea, a quote, a concept, or a particular person can be salient to us. For example, say you are looking at the Instagram feed of your local news organization. There is a story about the rise in college tuition. As a current college student, you would likely stop and read that article. However, your friend, a recent college graduate, may not even take note of the headline. The post is not inherently more important than anything else on your feed. The importance lies in the salience to you, the viewer. With so much information at our fingertips, our brains will pick and choose, or select, the information we pay attention to and what to ignore. This will directly impact our unique perceptions. Let’s look at some influences that make stimuli salient.


    Our basic needs often drive our perception. If you are hungry, you will mostly see opportunities to eat. You might notice restaurant fronts, hear ads for takeout on the radio, or see a person eating an ice cream cone walking down the street. You are selecting (most likely unconsciously) stimuli related to your basic need of hunger. Now let’s consider needs as they relate to relationships. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (Maslow, 1943), humans have a need for love and belongingness. In times when we might feel lonely or isolated, we may be especially in tune to the nonverbal cues of our friends or significant other. Or we might take special note of someone in class who goes above and beyond to give us special attention and care. These cues may not be relevant to those around us, but at times when this need is triggered, we may select to note the actions of others that may otherwise seem mundane.

    Let’s consider how we could use our understanding of needs in the selection process to communicate with our loved ones more effectively. Take for example that we are feeling particularly disconnected from a friend. Because our perception of what is happening is based on our own needs at that time, our perception may not match up with our friend's perception of the situation. As an example, imagine a friend in a hurry to get to work, but doing their best to be kind and communicative. This friend may not notice that because they are in a hurry, their communication seems terse or abrupt. Should you communicate to that friend that you are feeling especially lonely or isolated? Communicating our needs and perceptions of the situation with each other is a positive step. If your friend knows you feel unsure or concerned about the relationship, perhaps they will take extra care to check in with you or make an effort to not be so short on replies via text. Effective communication means that instead of jumping to conclusions, we recognize our needs, identify what would help fulfill them, and then use interpersonal communication. This will help to avoid hurt feelings, and instead go towards building maintaining a healthy relationship. Other influences on our perceptions include our interests and expectations.

    Checking In: Basic Needs

    Let’s take a moment to check in with ourselves as we read this chapter.

    woman holding an ice cream cone and smiling
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2a}\): Eating ice Cream by Megan Bucknall on Unsplash
    close up of a man in a black shirt, asleep on an open book
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2b}\): Asleep on books by Matheus Farias on Unsplash
    How Are You Feeling?

    If you are tired, hungry, busy, stressed, or distracted, you may be having a hard time focusing on this chapter. If you are calm, warm, comfortable, and focused, you may have a better time tuning in with our concepts.

    Take a moment to scan your senses. Is there anything you could do at this moment to alter your state for a favorable outcome: the ability to enjoy and understand learning about the perception process as you read more?


    Perhaps one of the most powerful and truly impactful aspects of selection is expectations. Expectations can be seen as a two-sided coin. On one hand, we pay attention to those things we think should happen, and on the other hand, we pay attention to things that violate our expectations.

    woman holding black android smartphone that shows a selfie with her friend
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Selfie by June Aye on Unsplash

    Let’s look at an example of how we select to pay attention to what should not have happened. Say you get up earlier than normal one day just to send your significant other a quick “I love you, have a great day” message before they head to work. You don’t hear back. Hours go by. When your inbox is still empty, you are on high alert. There was nothing to signal the silence, no fight or argument the day before that would warrant no response, so it is unexpected. You jump on social media and they’re tagged in a video with a friend, laughing and singing. Now you know they are OK, and apparently in good spirits, so this lack of response is even more unexpected. You begin to feel angry, anxious, hurt, and confused. You start to pay attention to things you would have otherwise found mundane: the time the video was posted, who else is around, what your significant other is wearing, etc. You decide to leave an angry comment on the social media post. Your significant other calls you, clearly upset by your post. You learn in your conversation that they not only left their phone at home in a rush to make it to work on time but weren't expecting to hear from you until after their shift, per your normal routine. You realize that your anger is not necessarily based on objective facts, but on your perception of what your partner should have done.

    The trick is learning how to separate our expectations from our reality. Can we objectively measure anything, really? Our perceptions influence our reality, not the other way around. Therefore, the goal is not to void ourselves of past experiences, but to be aware of how our needs, interests, and expectations shape our perceptions.


    Now that we understand how we select which stimuli to pay attention to, let’s look at how we organize that information. How we understand this process of organization comes from gestalt theory. Gestalt is German for “pattern” or “shape,” and the theory asserts that we essentially process stimuli by blending external stimuli with internal processes (Rock & Palmer, 1990). In essence, how we perceive the external world is heavily determined by internal influences. To break this down further, we will look at how we organize stimuli based on the three most common factors: similarity, difference, and proximity (Coren, 1980).

    Assumed Similarity and Difference

    When we believe or sense that someone is similar to us, we are more likely to be attracted to them as friends and give them the benefit of the doubt. The opposite is also true: if we find someone to be different from us, we will distance ourselves. It would be very hard to start this section off by not blatantly acknowledging that assumed similarities and differences often stem from stereotypes. So let me start with why we might stereotype in the first place: To put it simply, because it is easy. As we mentioned earlier, we are bombarded by stimuli on a daily basis. To be efficient—which many of us know is not always advantageous—we may stereotype because of its appeal to simplicity.

    Stereotypes have been described in psychology as “allowing easier and more efficient processing of information” (Hilton & Hippel, 1996, p. 240). Our brains are trained, from early childhood on, to function in this way. Whether it’s learning about animals, shapes, colors, or letters, we are taught to group similar-looking objects together as a means of understanding our environment. Through repetition of such activities, our perceptions based on similarities and differences are formed, reinforced, and encouraged. Although stereotyping can serve as a path of least resistance, we know that it can also create barriers for our ability to create healthy relationships with others. Now that we understand why we may stereotype subconsciously, and how that can be dangerous, let us continue to build these assumed realities.


    Proximity refers to how we perceive one object based on its surroundings. So, as we go about our day, we do not see objects, situations, or scenarios as isolated, but in context to the surroundings. This concept has been highlighted in the figure-ground relationship, which argues that our focus, whether it be on the object or the background, will change our perception (Knudsen, et al., 2021). This is highlighted in the classic faces/vase image displayed in Figure (\PageIndex{4}\). Depending on whether you focus on the black or white portions of the image, this determines which figure becomes prominent. Try for yourself. Do you see different the vase or the profiles?

    Focusing on the black portions, you see two faces looking at one another. Focusing on the white reveals a vase.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Profiles/face by Bryan Derksen licensed CC0 1.0

    Let’s add a layer here, building on our past key terms: salience and selection. Let’s say that you see a couple on a busy commercial street arguing, perhaps screaming. You may look at them and think, "wow, that is strange." You may attribute their behaviors to many factors, but you continue to drive, as you do not know the individuals or the situation. Now, let’s say you turn onto your street, get very close to your home, and see two people arguing, perhaps screaming. This is very close to where you live. These people could be your neighbors. You now feel that, because of the proximity of this confrontation to your home, it is more salient. You may also select to pay close attention to the two people arguing; you may even decide to take action, such as stepping in or calling the police, because you may organize the event as a threat to you and your family’s safety. The situation is the same, but the surroundings of the people in conflict have changed, thus making your perception of the situation different.

    Before we leave this section on proximity, let’s acknowledge how commonly we, and others, use proximity to organize the intentions of those around us. Have you ever been out with a friend to have someone assume you were together, or on a date? Or if you encounter the scene in Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\), where one child stands over another, who is on the ground and crying, could there be an assumption that one child hit or caused the other to be upset? Based on proximity, your physical immediacy to another person, object, or location could lead to false perceptions about you and others. Perhaps these perceptions are harmless, but they can cause significant harm to one or more parties involved, particularly when it comes to how we manage our relationships with others. Asking questions and consistently examining our biases as we move through the world can help us avoid making assumptions.

    Young boy crying with another child standing over him
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Young boy crying on the floor. Photo by yang miao on Unsplash

    Primacy and Recency Effects

    It has frequently been said that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Social psychologists use the term primacy effect to describe the phenomenon that people weigh what they see/learn first more heavily, seeing it as more salient than what comes later. To understand this further, let’s put the primacy effect into context with studies by Solomon Asch (1946) and Edward Jones (1968).

    Asch (1946) conducted a study that asked participants to share their overall impression of a person based on a list of characteristics that he read off. All participants were given the same set of characteristics: intelligent, critical, impulsive, industrious, stubborn, envious. However, the order in which the characteristics were listed was changed. Asch's findings led him to conclude that when the list of characteristics started with the more positive traits, the participants were more likely to rate a person more positively. Conversely, when the negative characteristics were shared first, the overall impression was negative. In a related study by Jones (1968), participants were asked to watch one of two videotapes of a woman taking an intelligence test. Reading these studies, you might think that first is always best. The answer is much more complicated than that.

    To demonstrate just how complex the human mind is, in some cases, the information that comes last is influential. Recency effect, though less common than primacy effect, explains the phenomenon that people give more weight to the last thing they see or hear. In a study by Wändi Bruine de Bruin (2005), higher marks were given to competitors who performed last in particular competitions (ice skating was one). So the question remains, what is best? As you might have guessed based on the theme of this chapter: it depends.

    Now that we have a foundation for how influential similarities and differences, proximity, and primacy and recency can be in how we organize stimuli, let’s take a deeper dive into how we might interpret our perceptions.