Top-down processing suggests that we form our perceptions starting with a larger object, concept, or idea before working our way toward more detailed information. In other words, top-down processing happens when we work from the general to the specific; the big picture to the tiny details. In top-down processing, your abstract impressions can influence the sensory data that you gather.
Top-down processing is also known as conceptually-driven processing, since your perceptions are influenced by expectations, existing beliefs, and cognitions. In some cases you are aware of these influences, but in other instances this process occurs without conscious awareness.
For example, imagine that you are driving down an unfamiliar street and you see a sign for a convenience store. The sign has several missing letters, but you are still able to read it. Why? Because you use top-down processing and rely on your existing knowledge to make an educated guess about what the sign says.
Top-down processing can be useful when we are looking for patterns in our environment, but it can also hinder our ability to perceive things in different ways. Our bias toward viewing objects in a certain way is known as a perceptual set.
A number of things can influence top-down processing, including context and motivation. The context in which an event or object is perceived can influence what we expect to find in that particular situation. If you are reading an article about food and nutrition, for example, you might interpret an ambiguous word as something related to food.
Motivation can also make you more likely to interpret something in a particular way. For example, if you were shown a series of ambiguous images, you might be more motivated to perceive them as food-related when you are hungry.
More Psychology Definitions: The Psychology Dictionary
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