Module II: Perception

Section 1: An Introduction to Social Perception

After completing this section, students should be able to:

  1. define perception.
  2. illustrate how patternicity drives perception.
  3. discuss how self-concept, other-concept, and meta-concept influence communication choice.
  4. explain how impression management is used to impact meta-concept.

Introduction to Social Perception

In looking at the basics of communication theory, we know humans live in a stimulus-thought-response world. We do not experience the world directly.  We sense and then think about external experiences.  Our senses are stimulated by things we see, hear, touch, taste, or smell, and then our brains sort through our accumulated store of knowledge to determine what it is.  As a result, our perception of what we have seen/heard/touched/tasted/smelled is our interpretation of events. We respond to the interpretation of the events, not to the stimuli directly.  Understanding this process of abstraction, of converting reality into thought, aids us in managing communication more effectively.

Perception is a process by which we create mental images of the world around us, the world “out there.”  Perceptions determine communication choices, so understanding this process helps us to avoid common perceptual problems.  We gain greater insight into how there can be multiple, equally valid perceptions of the same stimuli, increasing our ability to respect a range of diverse views. A significant implication of this understanding is it reveals how much responsibility we receiver-based communicators have in the success or failure of an event.  We have to be responsible for those perceptions. 

Human beings are natural-born pattern-seekers.  In his book, The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies, Michael Shermer describes this drive as patternicity.  He states, “Our brains are belief engines, evolved pattern-recognition machines that connect the dots and create meaning out of the patterns we think we see in nature” (2011, p. 66). This drive to find patterns is far more than just understanding the world; for primitive peoples, it was a key survival skill.  Shermer explains that with such discernment, “we have learned something valuable about the environment from which we can make predictions that aid in survival and reproduction.  We are descendants of those who were most successful at finding patterns"(2011, p. 66).

Finding out what something is and having it make sense to us decreases uncertainty. We are driven to learn more and more about the world around us, instinctively looking for cause-effect patterns.  The more of these cause-effect patterns we learn, the more we can manipulate and control causes to influence effects.  For example, as our knowledge increases of how the human body functions, the better we are at making choices to affect our health.  We can choose one food over another one, to exercise or not to exercise, select which medications or dietary supplements to take; all based on understanding the cause-effect patterns of good health.  In the field of Communication Studies, the more we understand communication and relational dynamics, the better we become (generally) at managing those relationships.  We know actively and genuinely listening to others enhances relationships, so we can learn and apply listening skills to positively affect those relationships. This desire to know drives science and inquiry; it leads us to ask questions about ourselves and our world to increase our sense of confidence in being able to discern “the way things are.” 

Understanding perception is crucial for effective communication because we need to accept we cannot truly "experience" another person.  We cannot feel what they feel, think what they think, or know what they know.  All we can do is take in our sensory observations and draw conclusions about what we think they are like.   Remember, humans sense-think-respond, so when we interact we are making communication choices based what is in our head, not directly with the person themselves.

As illustrated in Image 1, during an interaction between two people, six perceptions are used to make communication choices.

Image modeling the 6 concepts  we use to  make communication choices.
Image 1

First, our self-concept or how we view ourselves, impacts how we communicate.  If Jamal sees himself as interesting and outgoing, he is far more likely to initiate conversations, share personal information, and generally engage other people more easily and comfortably.  If Darrin believes he is not very interesting, he is far less likely to engage in such conversations.  People who are more optimistic and look for the positives of situations will communicate differently than those who are more pessimistic and look for the negatives of situations.  Our communication choices are driven, in part, by how we perceive ourselves.

Second, we choose how to communicate based on our other-concept, which is our perception of the other person.  If Jordan believes Alex is unlikely to understand the jargon she is tempted to use, she will select other, less technical language to get her point across.  Dealing with children is an excellent example of how other-concepts guide us: we know we must speak differently to children than to adults, so we adapt our language, communication style, topic selection, and other variables to fit the other person.

Third, we all engage in some degree of impression management; an attempt to influence how others perceive us.  Since we cannot read each other’s minds and really know what we think of each other, the most we can do is use our perceptual skills to create an image of how it appears we are perceiving each other.  This is our meta-concept.  We all have significant people and groups with whom acceptance and belongingness are important, and, as a result, we monitor how those people are responding to us and use those clues to create an image of how we believe they are thinking of us.  If Jake is hanging out with a reference group of male friends, and they are laughing at his jokes and responding to his comments, he probably feels good about his meta-concept and will continue to use those same behaviors.  On the other hand, if Jake feels ignored and not engaged or valued, he will likely alter what he is doing to get a more favorable response.

Decorative: two people talking.
Image 2


Consider a couple going on a date.  Each of them may think carefully and plan thoughtfully what they are going to wear, do, and say.  Looking for feedback from the other that the date is going well, Taylor may do or say things to elicit a favorable response, and her partner, Chris, will do likewise.  They are making communication choices based on how they believe they are being perceived by the other.  Taylor and Chris are making choices based on their meta-concepts.


Image 3
Image 3
Image 4
Image 4

When we decide what to say or how to say it, we make decisions based on our perception of who we think they are, not who they really are. 

Compare Image 3 to Image 4.  In Image 3, when first meeting, Angelina has very little information about Julian; she does not know him yet. As a result, Angelina’s other-concept of Julian (represented by the blue, dashed figure), is heavily based on Angelina’s assumptions about Julian.  But as they get to know each other and Angelina observes Julian's traits, her other-concept moves closer to the reality of Julian’s personality (Image 4). Since it is now based in direct experience, the image becomes a more accurate perception of Julian.  As we get to know others, our other-concepts and meta-concepts become more accurate and well-tested. However, no matter how well we know someone, we cannot experience the world directly from their perspective; we can only operate on our own perceptions.


Key Concepts

The terms and concepts students should be familiar with from this section include:


The Drive to Perceive

Perception and Communication Choices


Shermer, M. (2011). The believing brain: From ghosts and gods and politics and conspiracies—how we construct beliefs and reinforce them as truths. New York, NY: Times Books.