After reading this article you will learn about social perception and person perception.
The term social perception is very freely used by psychologists. Yet it is a very difficult term to define. Sometimes, it is used synonymously with person perception, which may not be strictly correct. Similarly, one can also mean that perception of any stimulus issue or event which has either a social origin or implication, constitutes social perception. This is a contextual approach.
On the other hand, one can also take a causal approach which means that any act of perception, which is or is likely to be influenced by social and cultural factors can be brought under social perception. Defined this way, almost every act of perception may be categorized as social perception because very often, even the perception of physical stimuli is influenced by social factors.
All of us are familiar with the classical experiments, where rich and poor children have been shown to differ significantly in their estimates of the sizes of the coins. Nevertheless, while this definition may lead us to bring within its scope a large number and variety of social facts, it has the advantage of being more comprehensive and inclusive.
Thus we may for the purpose of our discussion on social perception, accept the position that any act of perception which is influenced by social and cultural factors can be regarded as constituting social perception, and treat the subject of person perception separately.
The study and analysis of social perception serves two functions from the viewpoint of the psychologists. First, it helps us to understand the role of social, cultural and experiential factors in leading to individual and group differences in the perception of the same situation or object, among different cultures, societies, classes and communities. Such studies can explain the similarities of social perception within a homogenous social group and at the same time the differences and variations among groups.
A second and probably a more crucial point is that it has been shown that our perceptual processes are influenced by needs, values, interests etc. and are not just dependent on the physical characteristics of the stimuli. The above factors, probably there are many more, lead to selectivity in perception.
Further, these factors influence the elements in the stimulus situation that are selected by an individual, not only for perception but also interpretations. The perceptual process involves becoming aware of stimuli and also the interpretations of the same.
It has been shown that at both these stages, individual and cultural. variations play a determining role thus highlighting the role of ‘motivations’ and intentions in shaping the processes of perception. Many of the social factors are motivational factors, are acquired and can find satisfaction only in a social context. Thus from both these angles we can see the influence of social and cultural factors in perception.
Psychologists while studying social perception have extended the meaning of the term perception to mean many processes and behavioural events, that go beyond the traditional use of the term. Used in the context of social perception, the process includes complex processes like inference, judgement, categorisation etc.
In fact, many theories have been primarily concerned with the processes of judgement, categorisation, inference etc., which normally speaking do not strictly fall under the term perception. In one sense in this extended use, the term perception has virtually come to be synonymous with the term cognition. Nevertheless this extended use of the term perception has helped to understand how different kinds and levels of perceptual and other cognitive processes are interrelated.
Traditional psychologists for a long time held the view that the same laws, principles, dynamics and mechanisms involved in perception of physical objects should be adequate enough to explain what we describe as social perception also.
But very soon this view ran into difficulties as researchers began to generate evidence that social factors and experiences to a large extent influence perception in a social situation and further, that socially determined perception influences even non-social acts of behaviour.
In the classical book ‘Theories and Problems of Social Psychology’ by Krech and Crutchfield this trend of thinking is strongly visible. This was one of the earliest explicit attempts at bridging the gap between perception of the non-social type and perception in the context of social behaviour or social interaction or in other words, social perception.
Experiments came to be conducted to study the influence of factors like judgements and norms on perception and how these factors affected the reliability of perception. A result of this has been an increasing emphasis on the studies of biases, distortions, norms etc. particularly in social situations.
But there were other views also contributing to the linking up of social perception to perception in general. Bruner observed that ‘if perception in general necessarily involves processes of categorisation and also the evolving or arriving at an adequate system of categorisation which would serve as a frame of reference or anchor point for perceiving, judging and matching the kinds of stimuli, then there is no reason to doubt that such a system of categorisation will influence instances of perception of social objects, issues and events which are more complex and both require and admit a wide and large number of possibilities and lend themselves to more amenable classification’.
The implication is that the phenomena of social perception like formation of stereotypes can be subjected to categorical analysis as ordinary sensory stimulus inputs.
From this, we can see that the term social perception has come to include three major types of perceptual phenomena or activities:
Firstly, it refers to the perception of people or other persons;
Secondly it also includes processes of distortion which are assumed to result from socially determined factors like values, needs, norms, attitudes etc.
And finally there have also been studies which could tell us more about cognitive phenomena and the linkages and relations among different types of cognitive processes like inference, judgement, categorisation etc. The question of defining social perception gets more complicated if we take into account the interests of anthropologists like Kluckhohn in cultural differences in perception and thought concerning even physical factors like space and time.
Interests in the study of person perception probably received scientific attention from the work of Charles Darwin. It was perhaps his observations on the emotional behaviour of men and animals that probably gave an impetus to the study of perceiving others.
Later, towards the early part of this century, the interest was extended to study the processes and mechanisms involved in coming to know the characteristics of others. Naturally this was extended to study the possible variations and errors in judging the characteristics of others and an analysis of the various factors which contribute to such errors.
It was expected, that by such studies we would be able to arrive at some description or a profile of people who may be good judges of people. Subsequently attempts were also made to study the relationships of such perceptions to actual behaviour in relation to the person judged. Thus attempts were made to study how far our perceptions of another person influences our actual interaction.
Let us take a look at the various factors which are likely to influence our perception of another person. At the outset, we may say that the process of person perception is influenced by certain characteristics in the perceiving person or the perceiver. Then there are factors in the situation, or context, under which the perception of the other person takes place.
Finally the perceptual or cognitive factors employed by a perceiver and perhaps certain other factors also influence perceiver and perhaps certain other factors also influence perception. Let us represent the perceiver by the symbol ‘X’ and the perceived person by ‘Y’. Thus characteristics of ‘X’ and characteristics of ‘Y’ and the other situational contextual factors all come into play.
a. If one may list them, they are the characteristics and conditions of ‘Y’ like his intelligence, his emotional conditions, his intentions, his attractiveness etc.
b. The accompaniments or concomitant characteristics.
c. The cues from ‘Y’ are behaviour cues which are available to ‘X’, cues from the outside environment, outside the person ‘Y’, these characteristics can be distant or proximate to ‘X’,
d. The cognitive processes involved in using these cues.
e. Similarly, the perception of judgement of ‘X’ about ‘Y’.
Research in the field or person perception has by and large, centered around the above issues and the interrelationships among them.
Some of these issues are:
1. Firstly, many researchers have tried to analyse the degree of consistency and manifestation of the inner states and the process in the object person who is being perceived. If these are consistent forms of external expression of inner states, then which one among them are made use of by the perceiver in arriving at the judgement about the person?
2. Any perceiver in arriving at his judgement very rarely uses all the sensory cues; some are more useful and others are less useful. In arriving at his judgement or perception, the perceiver employs a number of behavioural perceptual processes. Researchers have been interested in analyzing the process and also finding out the differences if any in the process involved in the person perception and object perception.
3. Finally and naturally investigators have also been interested in the degree of correctness or validity of the judgements of the perceiver about the perceived person. If valid information on the last point can be arrived at, then perhaps, it may be possible to train people in observing others and arriving at judgement about them.
Unlike judging or perceiving a physical object where very few and that too overt and physical cues guide the perception, person perception involves multiple cues which are much more in number, more diverse and many of them are implicit and covert. No doubt externally observable physical cues like gestures, degrees of perceptible anxieties, facial expression etc. are used by the perceiver, but things do not stop there.
An actor can very well portray these things without there being a corresponding internal state. It is because of this that real person perception depends on the use of other types of cues which are not so visible, dependent on the context and circumstances which differ and which are not very consistent.
If we perceive a person as dishonest this is based not only on physical or physiological cues, but on a number of other cues which directly or indirectly guide our process of perceiving the individual. Moreover perceivers may use different cues on different situations and with different people.
If we are to understand the process of person perception, then the first step is to understand the kinds and nature of the cues used by the perceiver in the process of person perception. Here different approaches can be used. For example, we can use the jury technique and have a number of judges and take their consensus.
A little more sophisticated method is to use expert opinion. We may also use the ‘self reports’ by the perceived in arriving at the nature of the cues. We may on the basis of his reports try to identify the characteristics that could have helped the perceiver.
Finally, when judgement involves complex psychological variables even a psychometric assessment can be employed. Another possibility open to us is to start with the present stimulus and then experimentally study the conditions and attempt to establish connections between these and the various forms of cognitive judgements they generate.
It is precisely this approach which was pioneered by Heider and Jones & Davis. This approach has emerged and evolved and resulted into what is called the ‘Attribution Theory’. Of course, there are variations among different psychologists who, while broadly subscribing to the attribution approach, nevertheless advocate varying types of attribution. These various versions have already generated considerable amount of research and controversy.
Cues Employed in Person Perception:
Brunswick has argued that the various cues employed by the perceiver in perceiving another person are interchangeable and a variety of cues can be used for attributing a particular trait or quality to a perceived individual. It is this attribution of covert disposition or trait which plays a crucial role in the subsequent action and interaction. But even here, some attributed dispositions and conditions perhaps, are more important than others. Jones & Davis have discussed this elaborately in their work ‘From Disposition to Act’.
One of the important elements which is attributed is the ‘intention’ of the person especially those relating to the perceiver. By and large people tend to look at the other as responsible for action or as agents of action.
In addition, two other inferred variables appear to play a major role. These are the general good and bad qualities on the one hand and his power on the other. The former included qualities like sincerity, goodness etc. and the latter include the power of the other in relation to oneself.
To arrive at such inferences and judgements there are two broad sources of cues of information, one being the expression, gestures and actions of the person and the other relating to the contextual factors or the conditions under which the behaviour occurs.
There appears to be a general agreement that the action appearances and other features of the person, independent of the context can help in arriving at certain inferences or inferences about dispositions. Thus, by and large internal, emotional and mental states can be gauged from expressions.
A number of studies have shown as reviewed by Bruner and Goguire that broad emotional categories can thus be judged. These characteristics of the person very often lead the judges or perceivers to arrive at two or three possible inferences.
Similarly situational and contextual information can also be of help. Thus, if we know that a person has just then won a prize or award, then with this contextual information we do not even have to look at him to infer his internal status. Thus, person behaviour as well as ‘contextual cues’, each has its importance and aids in perceiving the other person.
However, these two sources of information interact and help in lending reality to the judgement. The observer or the perceiver combines these two sets of cues, those from the person and those from the situation, and arrives at the judgement which is very often realistic and functional.
It is here that we find that a third set of characteristics or cues enter into the picture. The cues received from the behaviour and action of the perceived individual and the contextual cues are sifted and organized by the perceiver who thus emerges as the third factor. Here we may see often that a judge works on ‘what could be the internal state of the perceived individual’ and in this process he thinks what would be the internal state if he were himself to be in that situation.
The judge puts himself into the shoes of the perceived individual. Most judges assume similarity between themselves and the perceived person, given a situation. Thus principles of similarity and empathy contribute quite a bit in arriving at judgement. Similarly, the tendency to attribute enduring dispositions or characteristics results in the ascription or attribution of in variance to social or person perception.
This tendency to attribute invariance, perhaps results from the general trend in cognitive processes to maintain and maximize ‘cognitive balance and minimise dissonance’. Some theories known as balance theories have emphasized this point. Thus, the perceiver arrives at an integrated totalistic perception of a person who is perceived as being consistently and homogeneously of a certain type-good, bad, bright, dull, irritable, pleasant etc. It is here that what are generally referred to as halo effect and logical effect come into operation.
The halo error or effect refers to a tendency to generalize our judgements from a known situation to an unknown situation. Thus if we perceive a person as an irritable individual, then this impression may be generalized and extended to perceive him as unpleasant, difficult to deal with etc.
On the other hand, logical error or effect is based on the perceiver’s idea of the relationship between different characteristics. Thus, we often believe that a person who is honest in money dealings will be honest in the work situation also, and in view of this he will be very punctual. These relationships in the minds of the perceiver among various traits also contribute to the formulation of the total stable perception.
Yet another process which comes into operation in our attempt to understand the other person and his behaviour is the tendency to attribute intentions or intentionality. Intentions are generally enduring and if we can understand the intentions of the other person, this can lead to stability and consistency of meanings.
Very often, this process comes into operation even when the objective behaviour of the person does not warrant this. This tendency to attribute intentions helps us to see the other person as the origin or initiator of action. In fact, one major process in arriving at an integrated view of the other person and his actions is the tendency to judge whether the cause of action is located within the person, thus making him responsible or whether the cause is outside and beyond his control.
Thus, the location of the cause ultimately decides how the behaviour of the other person is perceived and inferred. In view of this it is not surprising that very often identical types of behaviour are judged as being different and also different types of behaviour are often judged as being similar in meaning. In fact intention is an important component even in deciding the magnitude of an offence in court of law.
An important feature which has not been taken much notice of is that when continuous interactions are involved, the observer or perceiver first tries to arrive at a baseline or minimum characteristics and attributes of the other person and then all subsequent actions are judged against this baseline and as deviation or variations of this.
Thus, a person who is rated as strict, if he happens to be lenient with someone, this lenience gets a higher rating. Very often while referring to a person’s actions we say ‘I did not expect this from him. I expected something else’. These expectations show how a person’s actions are judged against a basic impression formed of him earlier.
It may therefore seen that our perception of others is influenced by a number of assumptions we make, like enduring dispositions, intentionality, basic baseline, image etc. All these may be considered as part of the typical implicit personality variance. Thus, these assumptions affect our perception of other persons just as our attitudes, conceptions and needs influence our perception of any situation or problem or event.
The Concept of Cognitive Style:
While the concept of learning style has emerged essentially out of phenomenological-oriented studies and researches on the process of learning, the concept of cognitive style on the other hand has emerged out of personality theories, personality research, research in perception and also clinical studies.
According to Messick the term cognitive style represents an individual’s typical ways of information processing and absorbing information processing habits, representing the individual’s typical mode of presenting, perceiving, thinking and problem-solving and remembering. A style certainly gives a distinctiveness and consistency to the individual’s cognitive behaviour. This way they almost become similar to cognitive behaviour.
It should however be clearly noted that the cognitive style of a person is very much independent of his abilities. While abilities deal with the quality of the contents of cognition, the style tells us about how an individual receives, processes and integrates information. The term ability has an evaluative implication which is not the case with the term style.
Attempts have been made to analyse the concept of cognitive style, some into dimensions of perceptual styles primarily concerned with the perception and analysis of data and formation and retention styles, dealing with an individual’s style of problem-solving, memory process etc.
Messick and his associates classified the dimensions under two major categories.
The two major categories are:
(1) Stimulus reception styles and
(2) Concept formation styles.
Under the first category, are perceptual modality preferences, visual, auditory field independence or dependence, scanning, constriction or flexibility, tolerance for incongruous experience etc.
Under the second category Messick and his associates include speed of concept formation, reflection vs impulsivity, early generalization vs. gradual generalization, compartmentalization, complexity vs simplicity and leveling vs. sharpening
It is perhaps not necessary to go into a detailed explanation of these various categories at this point. But it may readily be seen that some of these variations in styles of cognition can have a significant impact on social perception and behaviour.
For example, people who are levellers tend to integrate new experiences with past experiences and with the result do not feel upset by unusual experiences. On the other hand, those who are sharpeners tend to highlight even small differences and separate new experiences from previous experiences.
The significance of this can be seen in the context of stereotype formation. Those who are levellers tend to acquire and learn stereotypes much faster than those who are sharpeners. The latter are slower in acquiring and stabilizing stereotypes.
Similarly, those individuals who are faster in concept formation are more likely to resort to stereotyped thinking and over-generalizations than those who are slower. Then there are people who as a matter of style are inclined to compartmentalize experiences and the characteristics of others into rigid categories.
Such individuals again are more likely to take easy recourse to stereotyping. A similar tendency can be discerned in those who prefer simplicity of cognitive organization as opposed to those who have an inclination for cognitive complexity. A person with a simple cognitive style invariably looks for consistency, order and regularity as opposed to the individual who is more attuned to complexity. Sometimes this variation is also referred to as concrete vs. abstract.
Types of Cognitive Style:
One of the popular classifications of people into cognitive types has been that of Witkin. Witkin classifies people into two broad cognitive types, the Field Dependent and Field Independent. The two types reflect contrasting means and modes of information processing.
While in their extreme forms, the two may appear to be contrasting, nevertheless one can see a continuum from extreme field dependence to field independence. In general, a person who is more field dependent tends to be influenced by contextual factors compared to an individual who is more field independent.
In an attempt to draw a distinction between the field dependent type and the field independent type, Pat Berke, Guild & Garger present the following table of characteristics:
The implications of the above difference for social perception and interaction are obvious, and there is no need to indulge in a lengthy explanation of the same.
Gregore’s Phenomenological Approach:
In a phenomenological approach based on an analysis of one’s own experience, Gregore argues that people in their cognitive and learning styles vary on two dimensions. The first dimension varies from an extreme concrete orientation to an extreme abstract orientation.
The second dimension varies from a sequential approach to a random approach. Here people vary between an extremely systematic and sequential approach at one end to a random approach on the other. In interaction, these two dimensions help us to classify people into four types or styles. Concrete sequential, Concrete random, and Abstract sequential and Abstract random.
According to Gregore these respective orientations or styles certainly reflect highly discerned motives, thought processes and attitudes. It was also found that while many people usually operate with one or two styles, others are more adaptable and flexible showing what he calls ‘style flex’.
In brief the descriptions of the four cognitive styles are as follows:
(a) Concrete Sequential:
This reflects a preference for order precision, details, actual experience etc.
(b) Abstract Random:
Abstract random orientation is marked by a preference for emotionality, sensitivity and flexibility in time, strong relationships with others etc.
(c) Abstract Sequential:
This style indicates a preference for intellectual process and values logic, rational, analytical and theoretical.
(d) Concrete Random:
This style approaches the physical world including others as medium or opportunity through which one can extend and develop one’s own creative talents. These persons are curious and inquisitive and think for themselves.
Kolb and his Experimental Learning Model:
According to Kolb cognitive styles vary along with two dimensions, concrete to abstract and active to reflective. Based on these models Guild & Garger indicate that there can be four styles of leaners. The first type of learner who relies on concrete sensing and again is reflective.
They raise the questions of ‘why’. They are also very much influenced by their own personal values and integrate cognitive experiences with their beliefs, feelings etc. This type can be called Cognitive- Reflective (C-R). The second category who may be described as Abstract-Reflective (A-R) are primarily oriented towards integrating experience with what they know.
Their emphasis is on facts, accuracy, cognition and the right answers. The third type of learner. Abstract-Active (A-A) is again primarily oriented towards thinking and abstracting. The emphasis is on active learning. They want to be doing and are involved. Primarily they are pragmatic and value-oriented.
The fourth type, the Concrete-Active (C-A) rely very much on concrete sensing and feeling. At the same time, they are active. They are oriented towards assessing relationships and connections among the different elements. They seek to facilitate cognitive process in others. Thus, the phenomenological approach distinguishes different cognitive styles, based on the general orientation and attitude of the individual.
The implication of cognitive orientations including learning styles to social perception is obvious. In general, the styles of people are the same whether the learning situation is social or non-social. One can readily see the implications of style variations in the acquisition of stereotype, social attitudes including prejudices etc.
Further it has also been shown that such stylistic preferences are very much related to personality types, attitudes, emotionality and values. It is here that the stylistic variations in cognition assumes importance particularly in social psychology.
In any programme on bringing about attitude change, the presentation of the message and the contents certainly should take into account the predominant stylistic orientations. Factors like bias towards concrete or abstract, perception, analytic or wholistic bias, active or reflective inclinations of these are to be reckoned with in planning and deciding programme of attitude change whether in the classroom or in the organizational set up.