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On a daily basis, people create opinions and judgments of people around them. They might create opinions and judgments by the way they look, the type of attitude they have, and sometimes whom they remind them of. People then take in this information and try to interpret it, creating a perception of others. This perception of other people is often called social perception. Social perception is the process by which people interpret information from others, form impressions, and make inferences about others. Researchers generally believe that the perception people develop of others is most likely inaccurate and imperfect and affects their behavior toward others. The inaccuracy is normally developed from the perceptual process. In other words, as people search for cues that will enable them to make a crude categorization of a target, people become less open and more selective in their perceptual process. People also begin to search out cues to confirm categorization of the target, and as people’s categorization of the target becomes stronger, they often actively distort or ignore cues that violate initial perception about the target.
Familiarity with the culture and with the person perceived provides more information about what observed behaviors mean. An example of this is the holding of hands by males in the Arab culture as a sign of solidarity and kinship, rather than of homosexuality. One could imagine parallels in economic transactions where loud interactions with lots of harsh words exchanged might be a sign that the negotiation is going well and that each person engaged in the interaction is perceiving the other as someone to take seriously.
One’s perception of others is susceptible to a number of perceptual biases, such as projection, stereotyping, the “halo effect,” first impressions, self-fulfilling prophecies, and perceptual defense mechanisms. Projection refers to the tendency to cognitively assign one’s thoughts and feelings to others. For example, one would think that because one is always honest, others will be just as honest. In reality, this is often misleading. Stereotyping is a process by which an individual has preconceived notions of others based on a widely held, but fixed and oversimplified, image or idea of a particular type of person. The bias of stereotyping has been well documented in modern society, with examples ranging from the civil rights movement of the 1960s to women in the workplace. Negative stereotypes can dampen the earnings and diminish the promotion opportunities for women and historically disadvantaged minorities, for example. Relying on an inaccurate stereotype before truly getting to know someone will usually decrease the accurateness of social perception.
The halo effect occurs when one positive or negative characteristic dominates the way that person is viewed by others. With this bias, a person gives into the belief that his or her favorable impressions of another, such as “she is pretty,” correlates with how that person feels and thinks about the other’s character. An example of this is how many people view celebrities. Because people generally perceive these people as attractive and highly successful, people also tend to extrapolate beyond what is actually known of these individuals and believe them to be nice, humorous, and intelligent. First impressions are everything. Many people form their beliefs about others within minutes of meeting them, and this opinion may never change. People tend to initially judge others on their external appearances, such as individual’s clothes, shoes, cleanliness, makeup, body language, general pleasantness, eye contact, and handshake. These physical and social attributes form a first impression, which may influence how they are perceived and treated. Self-fulfilling prophecy is a concept that introduces the belief that how a person perceives an event or another person influences an outcome. For example, holding high expectations of another tends to improve the individual’s performance. People with low self-esteem tend to be caught in negative self-fulfilling prophecies where they act on an overly critical self-evaluation. They tend to have a pessimistic view of the world and their chances to influence their situation for the better.
Perceptual defense mechanisms are the tendency for people to protect themselves against ideas, objects, or situations that are threatening. They are used when a person does not perceive specific input because he or she has a filtering mechanism or perceptual wall preventing the sensory data from being processed. This may lead to the denial of information, a selective perception of another, or the modification of information to appease one’s personal beliefs.
- Fiske, Susan. “Social Cognition and Social Perception.” Annual Review of Psychology, 44 (1991).
- Förster, Jens and Fritz Strack. Social Cognition: The Basis of Human Interaction. New York: Psychology Press,
- Funder, David. “Personality.” Annual Review of Psychology, 52 (2001).