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Perception and its Significance

M.J. Arul

Introduction

We receive elementary inputs about the world through our senses and organise the bits and pieces of the input in ways that are advantageous to us in our attempts to deal with the world. The total process of receiving such inputs consists of four phases: stimulation, registration, organisation and interpretation. Usually, however, it is the last phase which is referred to as perception. The efficacy of facts seems to dwindle progressively as the facts pass through the four successive phases.

The phase of interpretation or giving meaning to a stimulus is determined by external factors (stimulus characteristics) as well as personal factors such as the perceiver's own needs, prior experience, mental sets and emotions. In the context of person perception and social interaction, these personal factors operate rather insidiously; they are subliminal in operation and thus stay below one's threshold of consciousness.

Attribution is the process of making an inference with regard to the causality of an observed behaviour. According to Kelly4, inferences of internal or external causality are made on the basis of consensus, consistency and distinctiveness. (If several others behave the same way in a similar situation, the behaviour is said to have high consensus. If the person behaves the same way over time, consistency is high. If one's behaviour is the same across situations, distinctiveness is low.) When all the three factors are high, we make an external attribution (i.e., we consider the situational factors as causes of the behaviour). When a person's behaviour appears to have low consensus and low distinctiveness, but high consistency, it is said to be caused by factors inside the person (internal attribution).

While attribution, as described above, appears logical and acceptable, caution is warranted because research evidence points out that people have a preferential tendency for internal attribution. That is, people by and large are more prone to assume others' behaviour (especially failures) to be a result of the kinds of persons the latter are than as influenced by external factors - regardless of the facts. The tendency is reverse in cases of one's own behaviour. Think of the possible problems and conflicts this fundamental attribution error can give rise to!

The attribution tendency, if left to take their natural course for long, tends to trap the individual into certain habitual ways of perceiving reality. Some of these habits or styles of perception can gradually insulate us from new experiences and enslave us to routinised judgements and expectations, whereby we become incapable of letting the facts speak for themselves.

People, especially managers, are interested in determining the reasons for people's behaviour. A manager's job involves evaluation and decision-making. Objective evidence or information has to be sought, on the basis of which decisions may be made. Perception of evidence, however, is a subjective process as has been indicated above. Stereotypy, halo effect, projection and selective perception are the dominant human perceptual tendencies which assume special relevance in the context of management, since the managerial job heavily depends on extracting the right information from a variety of reports and impressions of people and events.

Stereotypy

As a result of our socialisation in a given culture, we perceive certain traits as being associated with certain groups of people (see Box 1). Because such ready-made concepts are convenient and perceptually economical to use, the need for verifying them is often unrecognised.

Stereotyping leads a person to perceive and respond to others as members of one group or another, ignoring in the process the specific characteristics of individuals. In an experimental research by Haire, for example, the same photograph was found to cause different impressions of the person when it was labelled as that of a management representative and when labelled as that of a union leader.(1). A stereotyped perception of superiors, colleagues and subordinates will only reinforce one's blindness to the real boss, colleague and subordinate as individuals.

Box 1

Characteristics attributed to various provincial groups of India by some Hindi-speaking Indians.

Bengalis

timid; devious; crafty flatterers;given to empty threats;

marginal honesty; minimum generosity; provincial;

cliquish; eccentric; submissive.

Gujaratis

honest; just; quiet; empty threats;

kind; selfish; unreliable in crisis;

cowardly flatterers.

"Madrasis"

provincial; selfish; garrulous; cliquish; simple;

intelligent; cowardly; unreliable.

Punjabis

innocent; cliquish; generous; good;

quick to anger; rash; lawless; obstinate;

boastful; hardworking.

Source: Grimshaw, A.D. Social epithet in India - a Hindi example. J. Soc. Psychol. 1967, 72.

Halo Effect

This is the tendency to judge specific qualities or traits from an overall impression or knowledge of just one trait. A person operating from halo effect unwarrantedly assumes a personalised logical coherence of certain traits. If such a person found Mr. X likeable, for example, he would also rate him well on intelligence, decision making, work habits, etc. It was found in a study that officers who were liked were judged more intelligent than those who were disliked, even though their scores on intelligence tests were the same.

Supervisors who are engaged in performance rating of their employees shall do well to pay attention to this perceptual tendency.

The preceding lines on halo effect are not intended to deny any correlation that might exist among personality traits themselves. The purpose is only to caution against the tendency to judge a person with regard to a number of required traits on the sole basis of one trait known to be present in him or on the basis of an overall impression about the person.

Projection

Projection is said to occur when a person sees in others qualities which are his own, but which are too undesirable and too humiliating to admit to. Sears in his study found that people high in stinginess, obstinacy and disorderliness tended to rate others much higher on these traits than did people who had low measures of these undesirable characteristics.(2).

Fleshbach and Singer also studied the process of projection and, in addition, demonstrated a reduction in the projection mechanism of subjects who were encouraged to admit and talk about the traits they were projecting. (3).

In sum: we have a tendency to see our bad qualities as belonging to others. Recognition and acceptance of this tendency can help to save us from mistaking ourselves for others and help us perceive others as they are.

Selective Perception

It was mentioned earlier in this note that needs influence perception. This influence is in terms of selectively sensitising the person so that s/he perceives only those elements of a given situation which will help satisfy his/her needs; the person ignores other elements as long as the other elements do not come in the way of his/her need satisfaction. In other words, humans see what they want to see or what they are mentally set or ready to see. One's needs, values, cultural background and interests determine one's perceptual readiness.

One of the many needs human beings have is the need for cognitive consistency. This need can constructively guide an open-minded person to examine inconsistencies. A person who is not open-minded, however, will be driven into a morbid process of self-closure: When confronted with facts that are inconsistent with his/her earlier knowledge or stereotypes, s/he will unwittingly distort the data in order to eliminate the inconsistency (see Box 2). This process may take help of any one or a combination of the perceptual mechanisms from a person's repertoire so as to make the person play blind to "offensive" data (perceptual defense) and/or pay exclusive attention to data that confirm the person's treasured cognitions, beliefs or wishes (selective perception).

Box 2

College students see a factory worker *

In a study by Mason Haire and Will Grunes, two groups of college students were given a description of a "certain working man" and were asked to say what sort of person they thought the worker was.

The description given to group-I was: "works in a factory, reads a newspaper, goes to movies, average height, cracks jokes, intelligent, strong, active." Group-II was given the same set of words save for one word, namely, intelligent.

Group-II saw the worker as "......a typical American Joe: likable and well liked, mildly sociable, healthy, happy uncomplicated and well adjusted, in a sort of earthy way, not very intelligent, but trying to keep abreast of current trends, interested in sports and finding his pleasures in simple undistinguished activities."

The students of group-I had a difficulty in recognising the given working man against their stereotype of factory workers. They tried to protect their original belief by :

i) Denial of quality: "He is intelligent, but not too much so, since he works in a factory".

ii) Modification of the quality: "He is intelligent, but doesn't possess initiative to rise above his group."

iii) Recognising the incongruity, but maintaining the cognition: "The traits seem to be conflicting.. most factory workers I have heard about are not too intelligent." Some students even denied the man was a worker by promoting him to a foreman!


* Source : Krech, D., Crutchfield, R.S., and Ballachey, E.L. Individual in Society, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1962.

Concluding Remark

To be effective, behaviour has to be geared on facts, but facts are reached only through perception, which is subject to various distorting influences from the perceiver and the perceived. The personal factors which colour one's perception are so subtle in their operation that only a deliberate attention to them can make one aware of them.

Becoming aware of the perceptual determinants is one major and necessary step toward reaching the facts as they are; only if we are aware of them can we ever guard against or make adequate allowances for their distorting influences.


References

1. Haire, M. Role perceptions in labour-management relations: An experimental approach. Industrial and Labour Relations Review, 1955, 8, 204-216.

2. Sears, R.R. Experimental studies of perception: 1. Attribution of traits. J. Soc., Psychol. 1936, 7, 151-163.

3. Fleshbach, S. and Singer, R.D. The effects of fear arousal upon social perception. J. Ab. and Soc. Psychol., 1957, 55, 283-288.

4 Kelly, H. H. "Attribution in social interaction" in E. Jones et al. (eds.), Attribution: Perceiving the causes of behavior. (General Learning Press: NJ, 1972.)


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