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What Is a Perceptual Set?

How Your Expectations Influence Your Perceptions

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When it comes to our perceptions of the world around us, you might assume that what you see is what you get. What if I told you that the way you see the world is heavily influenced (and biased) by your own past experiences, expectations, motivations, beliefs, emotions, and even your culture? For example, think about the last time you started a new class. Did you have any expectations at the outset that might have influenced your experience in the class? If you expect a class to be boring, are you more likely to be uninterested in class?

In psychology, this is what is known as a perceptual set. A perceptual set is basically a tendency to view things only in a certain way. Perceptual sets can impact how we interpret and respond to the world around us and can be influenced by a number of different factors.

What exactly is a perceptual set, why does it happen, and how does it influence how we perceive the world around us?

Understanding Perceptual Sets

  • "Perception can also be influenced by an individual's expectations, motives, and interests. The term perceptual set refers to the tendency to perceive objects or situations from a particular frame of reference. Perceptual sets usually lead us to reasonably accurate conclusions. If they didn't, we would develop new perceptual sets that were more accurate. But sometimes a perceptual set can lead us astray. For example, someone with an avid interest in UFOs might readily interpret unusual cloud formations as a fleet of alien spacecraft."
    (Hockenbury & Hockenbury, 2008)

In one experiment that illustrates this tendency, participants were presented with different non-words, such as sael. Those who were told that they would be reading boating-related words read the word as "sail," while those who were told to expect animal-related words read it as "seal."

A perceptual set is a good example of what is known as top-down processing. In top-down processing, perceptions begin with the most general and move toward the more specific. Such perceptions are heavily influenced by expectations and prior knowledge. If we expect something to appear in a certain way, we are more likely to perceive it according to our expectations.

Existing schemas, mental frameworks, and concepts often guide perceptual sets. For example, people have a strong schema for faces, making it easier to recognize familiar human faces in the world around us. It also means that when we look at an ambiguous image, we are more likely to see it as a face than some other type of object.

Forces That Influence Perceptual Sets

  • Motivation can play an important role in perceptual sets and how we interpret the world around us. If we are rooting for our favorite sports team, we might be motivated to view members of the opposing team as overly aggressive, weak, or incompetent. In one classic experiment, researchers deprived participants of food for several hours. When they were later shown a set of ambiguous images, those who had been food-deprived were far more likely to interpret the images as food-related objects. Because they were hungry, they were more motivated to see the images in a certain way.

  • Expectations also play an important role. If we expect people to behave certain ways in certain situations, these expectations can influence how we perceive these people and their roles. One of the classic experiments on the impact of expectation on perceptual sets involved showing participants either a series of numbers or letters. Then, the participants were show an ambiguous image that could either be interpreted as the number 13 or the letter B. Those who had viewed the numbers were more likely to see it as a 13, while those who had viewed the letters were more likely to see it as the letter B.

  • Culture also influences how we perceive people, objects, and situations. Surprisingly, researchers have found that people from different cultures even tend to perceive perspective and depth cues differently.

  • Emotions can have a dramatic impact on how we perceive the world around us. For example, if we are angry, we might be more likely to perceive hostility in others. One experiment demonstrated that when people came to associate a nonsense syllable with mild electrical shocks, they experienced physiological reactions to the syllable even when it was presented subliminally.

  • Attitudes can also have a powerful influence on perception. In one experiment, Gordon Allport demonstrated that prejudice could have an influence on how quickly people categorize people of various races.

Perceptual Sets in Real Life

Researchers have shown that perceptual sets can have a dramatic impact on day-to-day life. In one experiment, young children were found to enjoy French fries more when they were served in a McDonald's bag rather than just a plain white bag. In another study, people who were told that an image was of the famed "Loch Ness monster" were more likely to see the mythical creature in the image, while others who later viewed the image saw only a curved tree trunk.

As previously mentioned, our perceptual set for faces is so strong that it actually causes us to see faces where there are none. Consider how people often describe seeing a face on the moon or in many of the inanimate objects that we encounter in our everyday lives.

As you can see, perception is not simply matter of seeing what is in the world around us. A variety of factors can influence how we take in information and how we interpret it, and perceptual sets are just one of these many factors.

References

Allport, G. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Bruner, J.S. and Minturn, A.L. (1955). Perceptual identification and perceptual organisation, Journal of General Psychology, 53(3), 21-8.

Hardy, M. & Heyes, S. (1999). Beginning psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-832821-6.

Hudson, W. (1960). Pictorial depth perception in sub-cultural groups in Africa. Journal of Social Psychology, 52, 183-208.

Lazarus, R.S. and McCleary, R.A. (1951). Autonomic discrimination without awareness: a study of subception. Psychological Review, 58, 113-22.

Meyers, D. G. (2006). Psychology: Eighth edition in modules. New York: Worth Publishers.

Sanford, R. N. (1936). The effect of abstinence from food upon imaginal processes: a preliminary experiment. Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied, 2, 129-136.

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