Our behavior is not only a function of our personality, values, and preferences, but also of the situation. We interpret our environment, formulate responses, and act accordingly.
This process, which is shown in Figure 6.1, includes the perception of select stimuli that pass through our perceptual filters, are organized into our existing structures and patterns, and are then interpreted based on previous experiences.
What makes human perception so interesting is that we do not solely respond to the stimuli in our environment. We go beyond the information that is present in our environment, pay selective attention to some aspects of the environment, and ignore other elements that may be immediately apparent to other people. Our perception of the environment is not entirely rational. For example, have you ever noticed that while glancing at a newspaper or a news website, information that is interesting or important to you jumps out of the page and catches your eye? If you are a sports fan, while scrolling down the pages you may immediately see a news item describing the latest success of your team. What we see in the environment is a function of what we value, our needs, our fears, and our emotions (Higgins & Bargh, 1987; Keltner et al., 1993). In fact, what we see in the environment may be objectively, flat-out wrong because of our personality, values, or emotions. Our reality, and appreciating that it can be drastically different than the reality of others, can be an invaluable skill in conflict situations.
We take in information through all five of our senses, but our perceptual field (the world around us) includes so many stimuli that it is impossible for our brains to process and make sense of it all. So, as information comes in through our senses, various factors influence what actually continues on through the perception process (Fiske & Taylor, 1991). Selection is the first part of the perception process, in which we focus our attention on certain incoming sensory information. Think about how, out of many other possible stimuli to pay attention to, you may hear a familiar voice in the hallway, see a pair of shoes you want to buy from across the mall, or smell something cooking for dinner when you get home from work. We quickly cut through and push to the background all kinds of sights, smells, sounds, and other stimuli, but how do we decide what to select and what to leave out?
We tend to pay attention to information that is salient. Salience is the degree to which something attracts our attention in a particular context. The thing attracting our attention can be abstract, like a concept, or concrete, like an object. The degree of salience depends on three features: visually or aurally stimulating; things that meet our needs or interests. Lastly, expectations affect what we find salient (Fiske & Taylor, 1991).
Visual and Aural Stimulation
It is probably not surprising to learn that visually and/or aurally stimulating things become salient in our perceptual field and get our attention. Creatures ranging from fish to hummingbirds are attracted to things like silver spinners on fishing poles or red and yellow bird feeders. Having our senses stimulated isn’t always a positive thing though. Think about the couple that won’t stop talking during the movie or the upstairs neighbor whose subwoofer shakes your ceiling at night. In short, stimuli can be attention-getting in a productive or distracting way. As communicators, we can use this knowledge to our benefit by minimizing distractions when we have something important to say. It’s probably better to have a serious conversation with a significant other in a quiet place rather than a crowded food court. During all communication, but especially during conflict, it is important to be mindful of your rate, volume, and pitch of your voice, gestures, and other nonverbal behaviours . Nonverbal adaptors, or nervous movements we do to relieve anxiety like pacing or twirling our hair, can be distracting.
Needs and Interests
We tend to pay attention to information that we perceive to meet our needs or interests in some way. This type of selective attention can help us meet instrumental needs and get things done. When you need to speak with a financial aid officer about your scholarships and loans, you sit in the waiting room and listen for your name to be called. Paying close attention to whose name is called means you can be ready to start your meeting and hopefully get your business handled. When we don’t think certain messages meet our needs, stimuli that would normally get our attention may be completely lost. Imagine you are in the grocery store and you hear someone say your name. You turn around, only to hear that person say, “Finally! I said your name three times. I thought you forgot who I was!” A few seconds before, when you were focused on figuring out which kind of orange juice to get, you were attending to the various pulp options to the point that you tuned other stimuli out, even something as familiar as the sound of someone calling your name. Again, as communicators, especially in persuasive contexts like negotiations, we can use this to our advantage by making it clear how our message or proposition meets the needs of the other party. We will talk more about our own needs and the needs of others in conflict in an upcoming chapter on motivation.
We also find salient information that interests us. Of course, many times, stimuli that meet our needs are also interesting, but it’s worth discussing these two items separately because sometimes we find things interesting that don’t necessarily meet our needs. I’m sure we’ve all gotten sucked into a television show, video game, or random project and paid attention to that at the expense of something that actually meets our needs like cleaning or spending time with a significant other. Paying attention to things that interest us but don’t meet specific needs seems like the basic formula for procrastination that we are all familiar with.
In many cases we know what interests us and we automatically gravitate toward stimuli that match up with that. For example, as you filter through music playlists, you likely already have an idea of what kind of music interests you and will select something in your preferred genre while skipping right past playlists that you aren’t interested in. Because of this tendency, we often have to end up being forced into or accidentally experiencing something new in order to create or discover new interests. As communicators, you can take advantage of this perceptual tendency by adapting your topic and content to the interests of your audience. We can also use this information to be aware of our own tendency to look only at information that interests us and challenge ourselves to push outside of our comfort zone.
The relationship between salience and expectations is a little more complex. Basically, we can find expected things salient and find things that are unexpected salient. While this may sound confusing, a couple examples should illustrate this point. If you are expecting a package to be delivered, you might pick up on the slightest noise of a truck engine or someone’s footsteps approaching your front door. Since we expect something to happen, we may be extra tuned in to clues that it is coming. In terms of the unexpected, if you have a shy and soft-spoken friend who you overhear raising the volume and pitch of his voice while talking to another friend, you may pick up on that and assume that something out of the ordinary is going on. For something unexpected to become salient, it has to reach a certain threshold of difference. If you walked into your regular class and there were one or two more students there than normal, you may not even notice. If you walked into your class and there was someone dressed up as a wizard, you would probably notice. So, if we expect to experience something out of the routine, like a package delivery, we will find stimuli related to that expectation salient. If we experience something that we weren’t expecting and that is significantly different from our routine experiences, then we will likely find it salient. We can also apply this concept to our communication.
There is a middle area where slight deviations from routine experiences may go unnoticed because we aren’t expecting them. To go back to the earlier example, if you aren’t expecting a package, and you regularly hear vehicle engines and sidewalk foot traffic outside your house, those pretty routine sounds wouldn’t be as likely to catch your attention, even if it were slightly more or less traffic than expected. This is because our expectations are often based on previous experience and patterns we have observed and internalized, which allows our brains to go on “autopilot” sometimes and fill in things that are missing or overlook extra things. These expectations can also lead to self-fulfilling prophecies. We will talk about those expectations later in this next section on self-perception.
Organizing is the second part of the perception process, in which we sort and categorize information that we perceive based on innate and learned cognitive patterns. Three ways we sort things into patterns are by using proximity, similarity, and differences (Coren, 1980). In terms of proximity, we tend to think that things that are close together go together. For example, have you ever been waiting to be helped in a business and the clerk assumes that you and the person standing beside you are together? The slightly awkward moment usually ends when you and the other person in line look at each other, then back at the clerk, and one of you explains that you are not together. Even though you may have never met that other person in your life, the clerk used a basic perceptual organizing cue to group you together because you were standing in proximity to one another.
We also group things together based on similarity. We tend to think similar-looking or similar-acting things belong together. I have a couple of friends that I go out with. We are all around the same age, with brown hair and glasses. Aside from that, we don’t really look alike, but on more than one occasion a server at a restaurant has assumed that we’re sisters. Despite the fact that many of our other features are different, the salient features are organized based on similarity and the three of us are suddenly related.
We also organize information that we take in based on difference. In this case, we assume that the item that looks or acts different from the rest doesn’t belong with the group. Perceptual errors involving people and assumptions of difference can be especially awkward, if not offensive. My friend’s mother, who is Vietnamese American, was attending a conference at which another attendee assumed she was a hotel worker and asked her to throw something away for her. In this case, my friend’s mother was a person of color at a convention with mostly white attendees, so an impression was formed based on the other person’s perception of this difference.
These strategies for organizing information are so common that they are built into how we teach our children basic skills and how we function in our daily lives. We simplify information and look for patterns to help us more efficiently communicate and get through life. Simplification and categorizing based on patterns isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, without this capability we would likely not have the ability to speak, read, or engage in other complex cognitive/behavioral functions. Our brain innately categorizes and files information and experiences away for later retrieval, and different parts of the brain are responsible for different sensory experiences. In short, it is natural for things to group together in some ways. There are differences among people, and looking for patterns helps us in many practical ways. However, the judgments we place on various patterns and categories are not natural; they are learned and culturally and contextually relative. Our perceptual patterns do become unproductive and even unethical when the judgments we associate with certain patterns are based on stereotypical or prejudicial thinking.
We also organize interactions and interpersonal experiences based on our firsthand experiences. When two people experience the same encounter differently, misunderstandings and conflict may result. Punctuation refers to the structuring of information into a timeline to determine the cause (stimulus) and effect (response) of our communication interactions (Sillars, 1980). Applying this concept to interpersonal conflict can help us see how the perception process extends beyond the individual to the interpersonal level. This concept also helps illustrate how organization and interpretation can happen together and how interpretation can influence how we organize information and vice versa.
Where does a conflict begin and end? The answer to this question depends on how the people involved in the conflict punctuate, or structure, their conflict experience. Punctuation differences can often escalate conflict, which can lead to a variety of relationship problems (Watzlawick et al., 1967). For example, Nasha and Jia are on a project team at work and have a deadline approaching. Nasha has been working on the project over the weekend in anticipation of her meeting with Jia first thing Monday morning. She has had some questions along the way and has e-mailed Jia for clarification and input, but he hasn’t responded. On Monday morning, Nasha walks into the meeting room, sees Jia, and says, “I’ve been working on this project all weekend and needed your help. I emailed you three times! What were you doing?” Jia responds, “I had no idea you emailed me. I was gone all weekend on a camping trip.” In this instance, the conflict started for Nasha two days ago and has just started for Jai. So, for the two of them to most effectively manage this conflict, they need to communicate so that their punctuation, or where the conflict started for each one, is clear and matches up. In this example, Nasha made an impression about Jia’s level of commitment to the project based on an interpretation she made after selecting and organizing incoming information. Being aware of punctuation is an important part of perception checking, which we will discuss later. Let’s now take a closer look at how interpretation plays into the perception process.
Although selecting and organizing incoming stimuli happens very quickly, and sometimes without much conscious thought, interpretation can be a much more deliberate and conscious step in the perception process. Interpretation the third part of the perception process, in which we assign meaning to our experiences using mental structures known as schemata. Schemata are like databases of stored, related information that we use to interpret new experiences. We all have fairly complicated schemata that have developed over time as small units of information combine to make more meaningful complexes of information.
We have an overall schema about education and how to interpret experiences with teachers and classmates. This schema started developing before we even went to preschool based on things that parents, peers, and the media told us about school. For example, you learned that certain symbols and objects like an apple, a ruler, a calculator, and a notebook are associated with being a student or teacher. You learned new concepts like grades and recess, and you engaged in new practices like doing homework, studying, and taking tests. You also formed new relationships with teachers, administrators, and classmates. As you progressed through your education, your schema adapted to the changing environment.
Schema reevaluation and revision is varies from situation to situation and person to person. For example, some students adapt their schema relatively easily as they move from elementary, to middle, to high school, and on to college and are faced with new expectations for behavior and academic engagement. Other students don’t adapt as easily, and holding onto their old schema creates problems as they try to interpret new information through old, incompatible schema. We’ve all been in a similar situation at some point in our lives, so we know that revising our schemata can be stressful and that such revision takes effort and usually involves some mistakes, disappointments, and frustrations. But being able to adapt our schemata is a sign of cognitive complexity, which is an important part of communication competence. So, even though the process may be challenging, it can also be a time for learning and growth.
It’s important to be aware of schemata because our interpretations affect our behavior. For example, if you are doing a group project for class and you perceive a group member to be shy based on your schema of how shy people communicate, you may avoid giving that person presentation responsibilities in your group project because you do not think shy people make good public speakers. Schemata also guide our interactions, providing a script for our behaviors. We know, in general, how to act and communicate in a waiting room, in a classroom, on a first date, and in the classroom.
Schemata are used to interpret others’ behavior and form impressions about who they are as a person. To help this process along, we often solicit information from people to help us place them into a pre-existing schema. In Canada and many other Western cultures, people’s identities are often closely tied to what they do for a living. When we introduce others, or ourselves, occupation is usually one of the first things we mention. Think about how your communication with someone might differ if they were introduced to you as an artist versus a doctor. We make similar interpretations based on where people are from, their age, their race, and other social and cultural factors.
“Perception” in Organizational Behavior by University of Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.
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