4 Perception

Perception and Perception-Checking

How shall I talk of the sea to the frog, if he has never left the pond? How shall I talk of the frost to the bird of the summer land if he has never left the place of his birth? And how shall I talk of life with the sage if he is a prisoner of his doctrine?  ~ Chung Tzu

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Chapter Overview

  1. Section One examines, first, the important concept of perception, explaining the three steps involved in creating a perception: selection, organization, and interpretation.
  2. Section Two looks at how culture impacts our perception of others.
  3. Section Three explores how the communication skill of a “perception check” can assist one in an intercultural environment.

*Attribution: This Chapter is attributed to Communication in the Real World Ch 2.

Section One – What is Perception?

Learning Outcomes of Section 1

  1. Define perception.
  2. Identify perception barriers.
  3. Discuss how culture and salience influence the selection of perceptual information.
  4. Explain the ways in which we organize perceptual information.
  5. Discuss the role of schemata in the interpretation of perceptual information.

Defining Perception

In Intercultural Communication, perception itself,  along with the associated skills of perception-checking (often stressed in interpersonal communication), are necessary for the process of intercultural communication to begin. Perception is more of a process whereby each of us creates “mental images” of the world that surrounds us, that is, of the “world out there”  (Green, Fairchild, Knudsen, & Lease-Gubrud, 2018).

Moreover Green, Fairchild, Knudsen, & Lease-Gubrud (2018) explain:

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 (Module II, Section 1).

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The importance of perception as a concept is evidenced by the nature of communication simply. Communication, recalling Professor Tucker’s three questions (Who am I? Who are you? and What are we doing here together?), may be understood as an intentional relationship between the Self and the Other. Fundamentally, then, the perception one’s Self possesses of the Other, and, vice-versa, informs the nature and character of the communication which establishes, forms, and furthers (or, unfortunately, perhaps may fail to do so) the relationship between the two.

Perception and Barriers to Communication:

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Individual perceptions and intercultural communication are decisively shaped by culture, that is, they are formed by culturally ingrained and instilled attitudes, beliefs, values, media, worldview, and language (Samovar, Porter, McDaniel, & Roy, 2017).

Given certain profound and oftentimes strange differences characterizing various cultures, a heightened sensitivity or apprehension on the part of one or both of the intercultural interlocutors can arise and pose some difficulties. A heightened, uniformed sensitivity or feeling of intense communication apprehension may pose a significant barrier to accurately understanding one another and is a threat to beginning and/or continuing the process towards obtaining intercultural communication/interviewing competence (Communication, 2016).

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There are a number of reasons for (Cavanaugh, 2015). First, remember that some degree of communication apprehension is quite natural, especially if neither person trying to engage has any substantial knowledge of the other’s culture. If apprehension is not addressed at this beginning stage, intercultural communication incompetence is quite likely to occur. Second, some individuals are, by nature, less comfortable and have difficulty engaging in communication with others of their own culture much less those of other very different cultures (Communicataion, 2016). Introverts often approach a self-other situation, intercultural or otherwise, with a need to process their feelings and thoughts so as to be prepared before moving into any intercultural conversation or experience. Extroverts, on the other hand, may very well have moved on or prematurely jumped in before thinking through the complexities of the situation. As always, the middle ground of an equal measure of thought and action is helpful. Third, for many, especially those who have grown up without any contact or experience with people of a different culture, initial encounters with people of different cultures may be anxiety-producing. Such persons may be caught up in culturally ingrained and misguided perceptions of unknown cultures (Cavanauagh, 2015). It is important, then, as  Green, Fairchild, Knudsen, & Lease-Gubrud (2018) point out, that there is a responsibility involved: to “…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” (Module 2, Section 2). Finally, in the interview process itself, some students worry about sounding like a “therapist” or “salesperson.” Gudykunst and Kim (1995) provide insight which was aptly summarized by Glaser (n.d.):

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The increased uncertainty in interactions with strangers is accompanied by higher levels of anxiety, as we anticipate a wider array of possible negative outcomes. We may worry about damage to our self-esteem from feeling confused and out of control. We may fear the possibility of being incompetent, or being exploited. We may worry about being perceived negatively by the stranger. And we may worry that interacting with a stranger will bring disapproval from members of our own group. Generally these anxieties can be reduced by paying more conscious attention to the communication process, and by gathering more information on the stranger. The authors add a further caution. Generally, individuals tend to explain their own behavior by reference to the situation. Observers tend to attribute an individual’s behavior to elements of that individual’s character. When interacting with strangers we are especially likely to attribute their behavior to their character, and then to view their character as typical of their culture (or race, etc.). That is, we are especially likely to interpret a stranger’s behavior in light of our stereotypes about what ‘those kind of people’ are like (Glaser, n.d.).

What would YOU do?

“What would you do when you think no one is watching? What Would You Do? (WWYD?) explores the varying answers with the help of hidden cameras capturing individuals who have been placed within seemingly everyday situation that quickly go awry. The individuals on this hidden camera show are forced to make tough calls when directly faced with situations of racism, violence, hate crimes, and other hot button cultural issues. Catch John Quinones reporting on these individuals as they make split-second decisions to intervene or mind their own business. WWYD? airs Friday nights at 9|8c on ABC.”

 

Overcoming Perceptional Barriers

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The concepts of perception and , then, are skills that help to avoid such perspectives. The key to accurate perception and perception checking is possessing an informed cultural sensitivity. According to McCrosky (2001), sources of communication, and, indeed, intercultural communication anxiety are related to trait, context, audience and situation. Thus, in the process of communicating, taking time to acquire and exercise one’s perception-checking skills with one’s intercultural dialogic interlocutor (and vice versa) is essential. However, an informed cultural sensitivity is necessary for the interviewer in communicating with the interviewee. This sensitivity succinctly conveys respect, honest curiosity, and a desire to learn from and hear the story of the Other–this is something akin to, “compassionate listening” (sometimes also referred to as “deep listening”), which will be explored later. Practically, it also has the effect of lessening communication apprehension thus allowing for richer, deeper conversation.

Selection, Organization, and Interpretation

Perception itself is further defined by Neuliep (2018) as the “mental interpretation of external stimuli via sensation” (the accumulating of external stimuli through visual, auditory, olfactic, taste, and tactile senses). That is, the first stage of perception must be the selection of sense-data or the “raw information,” perceived and taken in by the senses (p.157). As Mclean (2018) explains:

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…[W]hat we perceive is culturally bound. We are taught from a very young age what to pay attention to and what to ignore. We learn what is important in our culture and look for those clues to make meaning. We often ignore clues that we’ve learned are considered unimportant. Sometimes we miss valuable clues that are right under our noses. Learning to recognize that we perceive stimuli in different ways helps us start to address this central question: Why don’t we all see things the same way? Understanding ourselves is fundamental to understanding others and intercultural communication (Section 2.2).

Now, as Samovar, Porter, McDaniel, & Roy (2017) point out, we humans live in “an information-saturated world [or culture]”–constantly inundated by physical and psychological factors, that, due to sheer number, we are not able to select and process. Scholars in the Intercultural Communication field, then, usually posit some steps, perceptual filters, often consisting of a three-step process–selection, organization, and interpretation–to help order stimuli (Jandt, 2013). Keep in mind, during the first step of selection, the individual communicator chooses, consciously or unconsciously, which of the stimuli to pay attention to and which to ignore. With the second step, that stimuli chosen must be organized, after which, in the third step, interpretation, meaning is assigned to perceived sense data (Samovar, Porter, McDaniel, & Roy, 2017).

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Communication in the Real World: An Introduction to Communication Studies (2016) expands upon how selection works:

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). Selecting 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. For example, a person’s identity as a Native American may become salient when they are protesting at the Columbus Day parade in Denver, Colorado. Or a bright flashlight shining in your face while camping at night is sure to be salient. The degree of salience depends on three features (Fiske & Taylor, 1991). We tend to find salient things that are visually or aurally stimulating and things that meet our needs or interests. Lastly, expectations affect what we find salient.

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. As we will learn later in Chapter 12 “Public Speaking in Various Contexts”, altering the rate, volume, and pitch of your voice, known as vocal variety, can help keep your audience engaged, as can gestures and movement. Conversely, nonverbal adaptors, or nervous movements we do to relieve anxiety like pacing or twirling our hair, can be distracting. Aside from minimizing distractions and delivering our messages enthusiastically, the content of our communication also affects salience.

Needs and Interests

Person playing video game.
R Pollard – tex playing video games – CC BY 2.0.

We tend to pay attention to information that we perceive to meet our needs or interests in some way. For example, If you’re engrossed in an interesting video game, you may not notice other perceptual cues.

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, we can use this to our advantage by making it clear how our message or proposition meets the needs of our audience members. Whether a sign helps us find the nearest gas station, the sound of a ringtone helps us find our missing cell phone, or a speaker tells us how avoiding processed foods will improve our health, we select and attend to information that meets our needs.

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 radio stations, you likely already have an idea of what kind of music interests you and will stop on a station playing something in that genre while skipping right past stations playing something 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. For example, you may not realize you are interested in Asian history until you are required to take such a course and have an engaging professor who sparks that interest in you. Or you may accidentally stumble on a new area of interest when you take a class you wouldn’t otherwise because it fits into your schedule. As communicators, you can take advantage of this perceptual tendency by adapting your topic and content to the interests of your audience,

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Expectations

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. I always encourage my students to include supporting material in their speeches that defies our expectations. You can help keep your audience engaged by employing good research skills to find such information.

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. Look at the following sentence and read it aloud: Percpetoin is bsaed on pateetrns, maening we otfen raech a cocnlsuion witouht cosnidreing ecah indviidaul elmenet. This example illustrates a test of our expectation and an annoyance to every college student. We have all had the experience of getting a paper back with typos and spelling errors circled. This can be frustrating, especially if we actually took the time to proofread. When we first learned to read and write, we learned letter by letter. A teacher or parent would show us a card with A-P-P-L-E written on it, and we would sound it out. Over time, we learned the patterns of letters and sounds and could see combinations of letters and pronounce the word quickly. Since we know what to expect when we see a certain pattern of letters, and know what comes next in a sentence since we wrote the paper, we don’t take the time to look at each letter as we proofread. This can lead us to overlook common typos and spelling errors, even if we proofread something multiple times. As a side note, I’ll share two tips to help you avoid proofreading errors: First, have a friend proofread your paper. Since they didn’t write it, they have fewer expectations regarding the content. Second, read your papers backward. Since patterns of speech aren’t the same in reverse you have to stop and focus on each word. Now that we know how we select stimuli, let’s turn our attention to how we organize the information we receive (Communication in the Real World, 2016).

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Again, drawing from the Open Education Resource (OER), Communication in the Real World: An Introduction to Communication Studies (2016), the second step of perception, organization, is also complex:

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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 difference (Coren, 1980).

Proximity

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. Since we organize perceptual information based on proximity, a person may perceive that two people are together, just because they are standing close together in line.

Similarity

We also group things together based on similarity. We tend to think similar-looking or similar-acting things belong together. I have two friends that I occasionally go out with, and we are all three males, around the same age, of the same race, with short 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 brothers. 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.

Difference

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. I’m sure we all had to look at pictures in grade school and determine which things went together and which thing didn’t belong. If you think of the literal act of organizing something, like your desk at home or work, we follow these same strategies. If you have a bunch of papers and mail on the top of your desk, you will likely sort papers into separate piles for separate classes or put bills in a separate place than personal mail. You may have one drawer for pens, pencils, and other supplies and another drawer for files. In this case you are grouping items based on similarities and differences. You may also group things based on proximity, for example, by putting financial items like your checkbook, a calculator, and your pay stubs in one area so you can update your budget efficiently. In summary, we simplify information and look for patterns to help us more efficiently communicate and get through life.

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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, Bavelas, & Jackson, 1967). For example, Linda and Joe are on a project team at work and have a deadline approaching. Linda has been working on the project over the weekend in anticipation of her meeting with Joe first thing Monday morning. She has had some questions along the way and has e-mailed Joe for clarification and input, but he hasn’t responded. On Monday morning, Linda walks into the meeting room, sees Joe, and says, “I’ve been working on this project all weekend and needed your help. I e-mailed you three times! What were you doing?” Joe responds, “I had no idea you e-mailed me. I was gone all weekend on a camping trip.” In this instance, the conflict started for Linda two days ago and has just started for Joe. 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, Linda made an impression about Joe’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 (Communication, 2016, p).

The free “OER” online textbook, Communication in the Real World: An Introduction to Communication Studies (2016), explains more about the interpretation step:

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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 is 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. How smooth or troubling 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 him 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 on a game show. Even a person who has never been on a game show can develop a schema for how to act in that environment by watching The Price Is Right, for example. People go to great lengths to make shirts with clever sayings or act enthusiastically in hopes of being picked to be a part of the studio audience and hopefully become a contestant on the show.

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As we have seen, 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 the United States 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 he or she 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. We will learn more about how culture, gender, and other factors influence our perceptions as we continue through the chapter. In summary, we have schemata about individuals, groups, places, and things, and these schemata filter our perceptions before, during, and after interactions. As schemata are retrieved from memory, they are executed, like computer programs or apps on your smartphone, to help us interpret the world around us. Just like computer programs and apps must be regularly updated to improve their functioning, competent communicators update and adapt their schemata as they have new experiences (Communication, 2016, pp.61-62).

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“Getting Real” (From Communication in the Real  World, 2016)

Police Officers, Schemata, and Perception/Interpretation

Prime-time cable and network television shows like the Law and Order franchise and Southland have long offered viewers a glimpse into the lives of law enforcement officers. COPS, the first and longest-running prime-time reality television show, and newer reality-themed and educational shows like The First 48 and Lockdown, offer a more realistic look into techniques used by law enforcement. Perception is a crucial part of an officer’s skill set. Specifically, during police-citizen encounters, where tensions may be high and time for decision making limited, officers rely on schemata developed through personal experience off the job and training and experience on the job (Rozelle & Baxter, 1975). Moreover, police officers often have to make perceptions based on incomplete and sometimes unreliable information. So, how do police officers use perception to help them do their jobs?

Research has examined how police officers use perception to make judgments about personality traits, credibility, deception, and the presence or absence of a weapon, among others things, and just like you and me, officers use the same process of selection, organization, and interpretation. This research has found that officers, like us, rely on schema to help them make decisions under time and situational constraints. In terms of selection, expectations influence officer perception. At preshift meetings, officers are briefed on ongoing issues and “things to be on the lookout for,” which provides them with a set of expectations—for example, the make and model of a stolen car—that can guide their selection process. They must also be prepared for things that defy their expectations, which is not a job skill that many other professionals have to consider every day. They never know when a traffic stop could turn into a pursuit or a seemingly gentle person could turn violent. These expectations can then connect to organization strategies. For example, if an officer knows to be alert for a criminal suspect, they will actively organize incoming perceptual information into categories based on whether or not people look similar to or different from the suspect description. Proximity also plays into police work. If a person is in a car with a driver who has an unregistered handgun, the officer is likely to assume that the other person also has criminal intent. While these practices are not inherently bad, there are obvious problems that can develop when these patterns become rigid schema. Some research has shown that certain prejudices based on racial schema can lead to perceptual errors—in this case, police officers mistakenly perceiving a weapon in the possession of black suspects more often than white suspects (Payne, 2001). Additionally, racial profiling (think of how profiles are similar to schemata) has become an issue that’s gotten much attention since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the passage of immigration laws in states like Arizona and Alabama that have been critiqued as targeting migrant workers and other undocumented immigrants. As you can see, law enforcement officers and civilians use the same perception process, but such a career brings with it responsibilities and challenges that highlight the imperfect nature of the perception process.

  1. What communication skills do you think are key for a law enforcement officer to have in order to do their job effectively and why?
  2. Describe an encounter that you have had with a law enforcement officer (if you haven’t had a direct experience you can use a hypothetical or fictional example). What were your perceptions of the officer? What do you think his or her perceptions were of you? What schemata do you think contributed to each of your interpretations?
  3. What perceptual errors create potential ethical challenges in law enforcement? For example, how should the organizing principles of proximity, similarity, and difference be employed?

Summary of the Steps of Perception:

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Selecting, organizing and interpreting, then, all have unique roles in formulating the overall perception one has of a person, place or thing. McLean (2018) stresses the intercultural elements involved in perception:

Our perception process is largely universal, even when we consider the range of sight, hearing, feeling, smell, or taste. What differs is how we perceive it, and our interpretations reflect our cultural backgrounds. We can easily recognize, for example, that some people can discern all the flavor “notes” in a wine, while to others all red wines taste almost the same. We can also acknowledge that we change over time, and young eyes often work better than older eyes. That said, it is not as much about whether our eyes are young or have seen many seasons as what we focus on or ignore during that perception process that makes a significant difference. Indeed, what it means to be “young” or “old” varies by culture. We perceive through our senses of touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound, and we form perceptions through the lens of our cultural background (Section 2.2).

This, then, gives rise to the need to check if our perceptions are correct. is a skill used to do just that. We’ll explore perception checking in the last section. Next, we turn to perceiving others.

 

Key Takeaways on Defining the Process of Persuasion

  • Perception is the process of selecting, organizing, and interpreting information. This process affects our communication because we respond to stimuli differently, whether they are objects or persons, based on how we perceive them.
  • Given the massive amounts of stimuli taken in by our senses, we only select a portion of the incoming information to organize and interpret. We select information based on salience. We tend to find salient things that are visually or aurally stimulating and things that meet our needs and interests. Expectations also influence what information we select.
  • We organize information that we select into patterns based on proximity, similarity, and difference.
  • We interpret information using schemata, which allow us to assign meaning to information based on accumulated knowledge and previous experience.

Exercises for Perception Chapter Section One

  1. Take a moment to look around wherever you are right now. Take in the perceptual field around you. What is salient for you in this moment and why? Explain the degree of salience using the three reasons for salience discussed in this section.
  2. As we organize information (sensory information, objects, and people) we simplify and categorize information into patterns. Identify some cases in which this aspect of the perception process is beneficial. Identify some cases in which it could be harmful or negative.
  3. Getting integrated: Think about some of the schemata you have that help you make sense of the world around you. For each of the following contexts—academic, professional, personal, and civic—identify a schema that you commonly rely on or think you will rely on. For each schema you identified note a few ways that it has already been challenged or may be challenged in the future.

Section Two: Perceiving Others

Learning Outcomes:

  1. Differentiate between internal and external attributions.
  2. Explain two common perceptual errors: the fundamental attribution error and the self-serving bias.
  3. Discuss how the primacy and recency effects relate to first and last impressions.
  4. Discuss how physical and environmental factors influence perception.
  5. Explain the horn and halo effects.
  6. Recognize the roles that culture and personality play in the perception of others.

Perception and Others

Are you a good judge of character? How quickly can you “size someone up?” Interestingly, research shows that many people are surprisingly accurate at predicting how an interaction with someone will unfold based on initial impressions. Fascinating research has also been done on the ability of people to make a judgment about a person’s competence after as little as 100 milliseconds of exposure to politicians’ faces. Even more surprising is that people’s judgments of competence, after exposure to two candidates for senate elections, accurately predicted election outcomes (Ballew II & Todoroy, 2007). In short, after only minimal exposure to a candidate’s facial expressions, people made judgments about the person’s competence, and those candidates judged more competent were people who actually won elections! As you read this section, keep in mind that these principles apply to how you perceive others and to how others perceive you. Just as others make impressions on us, we make impressions on others. We have already learned how the perception process works in terms of selecting, organizing, and interpreting. In this section, we will focus on how we perceive others, with specific attention to how we interpret our perceptions of others.

Attribution and Interpretation

I’m sure you have a family member, friend, or coworker with whom you have ideological or political differences. When conversations and inevitable disagreements occur, you may view this person as “pushing your buttons” if you are invested in the issue being debated, or you may view the person as “on their soapbox” if you aren’t invested. In either case, your existing perceptions of the other person are probably reinforced after your conversation and you may leave the conversation thinking, “She is never going to wake up and see how ignorant she is! I don’t know why I even bother trying to talk to her!” Similar situations occur regularly, and there are some key psychological processes that play into how we perceive others’ behaviors. By examining these processes, attribution in particular, we can see how our communication with others is affected by the explanations we create for others’ behavior. In addition, we will learn some common errors that we make in the attribution process that regularly lead to conflict and misunderstanding.

Attribution

In most interactions, we are constantly running an attribution script in our minds, which essentially tries to come up with explanations for what is happening. Why did my neighbor slam the door when she saw me walking down the hall? Why is my partner being extra nice to me today? Why did my officemate miss our project team meeting this morning? In general, we seek to attribute the cause of others’ behaviors to internal or external factors. Internal attributions connect the cause of behaviors to personal aspects such as personality traits. External attributions connect the cause of behaviors to situational factors. Attributions are important to consider because our reactions to others’ behaviors are strongly influenced by the explanations we reach. Imagine that Gloria and Jerry are dating. One day, Jerry gets frustrated and raises his voice to Gloria. She may find that behavior more offensive and even consider breaking up with him if she attributes the cause of the blow up to his personality, since personality traits are usually fairly stable and difficult to control or change.

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Frustrated drivers often use internal attributions to explain other drivers’ behaviors. Beelgin – ROAD RAGE FIST – CC BY 2.0.

Conversely, Gloria may be more forgiving if she attributes the cause of his behavior to situational factors beyond Jerry’s control, since external factors are usually temporary. If she makes an internal attribution, Gloria may think, “Wow, this person is really a loose cannon. Who knows when he will lose it again?” If she makes an external attribution, she may think, “Jerry has been under a lot of pressure to meet deadlines at work and hasn’t been getting much sleep. Once this project is over, I’m sure he’ll be more relaxed.” This process of attribution is ongoing, and, as with many aspects of perception, we are sometimes aware of the attributions we make, and sometimes they are automatic and/or unconscious. Attribution has received much scholarly attention because it is in this part of the perception process that some of the most common perceptual errors or biases occur.

One of the most common perceptual errors is the fundamental attribution error, which refers to our tendency to explain others’ behaviors using internal rather than external attributions (Sillars, 1980). For example, when I worked at an urban college in Denver, Colorado, I often had students come into class irritated, saying, “I got a parking ticket! I can’t believe those people. Why don’t they get a real job and stop ruining my life!” If you Google some clips from the reality television show Parking Wars, you will see the ire that people often direct at parking enforcement officers. In this case, illegally parked students attribute the cause of their situation to the malevolence of the parking officer, essentially saying they got a ticket because the officer was a mean/bad person, which is an internal attribution. Students were much less likely to acknowledge that the officer was just doing his or her job (an external attribution) and the ticket was a result of the student’s decision to park illegally.

Perceptual errors can also be biased, and in the case of the self-serving bias, the error works out in our favor. Just as we tend to attribute others’ behaviors to internal rather than external causes, we do the same for ourselves, especially when our behaviors have led to something successful or positive. When our behaviors lead to failure or something negative, we tend to attribute the cause to external factors. Thus the self-serving bias is a perceptual error through which we attribute the cause of our successes to internal personal factors while attributing our failures to external factors beyond our control. When we look at the fundamental attribution error and the self-serving bias together, we can see that we are likely to judge ourselves more favorably than another person, or at least less personally.

The professor-student relationship offers a good case example of how these concepts can play out. I have often heard students who earned an unsatisfactory grade on an assignment attribute that grade to the strictness, unfairness, or incompetence of their professor. I have also heard professors attribute a poor grade to the student’s laziness, attitude, or intelligence. In both cases, the behavior is explained using an internal attribution and is an example of the fundamental attribution error. Students may further attribute their poor grade to their busy schedule or other external, situational factors rather than their lack of motivation, interest, or preparation (internal attributions). On the other hand, when students gets a good grade on a paper, they will likely attribute that cause to their intelligence or hard work rather than an easy assignment or an “easy grading” professor. Both of these examples illustrate the self-serving bias. These psychological processes have implications for our communication because when we attribute causality to another person’s personality, we tend to have a stronger emotional reaction and tend to assume that this personality characteristic is stable, which may lead us to avoid communication with the person or to react negatively. Now that you aware of these common errors, you can monitor them more and engage in perception checking, which we will learn more about later, to verify your attributions.

Impressions and Interpretation

As we perceive others, we make impressions about their personality, likeability, attractiveness, and other characteristics. Although much of our impressions are personal, what forms them is sometimes based more on circumstances than personal characteristics. All the information we take in isn’t treated equally. How important are first impressions? Does the last thing you notice about a person stick with you longer because it’s more recent? Do we tend to remember the positive or negative things we notice about a person? This section will help answer these questions, as we explore how the timing of information and the content of the messages we receive can influence our perception.

Physical and Environmental Influences on Perception

We make first impressions based on a variety of factors, including physical and environmental characteristics. In terms of physical characteristics, style of dress and grooming are important, especially in professional contexts. We have general schema regarding how to dress and groom for various situations ranging from formal, to business casual, to casual, to lounging around the house.

You would likely be able to offer some descriptors of how a person would look and act from the following categories: a goth person, a prep, a jock, a fashionista, a hipster. The schema associated with these various cliques or styles are formed through personal experience and through exposure to media representations of these groups. Different professions also have schema for appearance and dress. Imagine a doctor, mechanic, congressperson, exotic dancer, or mail carrier. Each group has clothing and personal styles that create and fit into general patterns. Of course, the mental picture we have of any of the examples above is not going to be representative of the whole group, meaning that stereotypical thinking often exists within our schema. We will learn more about the negative effects of stereotypical thinking later in the chapter, but it’s important to understand how persuasive various physical perceptual influences can be.

Think about the harm that has been done when people pose as police or doctors to commit crimes or other acts of malice. Seeing someone in a white lab coat automatically leads us to see that person as an authority figure, and we fall into a scripted pattern of deferring to the “doctor” and not asking too many questions. The Milgram experiments offer a startling example of how powerful these influences are. In the experiments, participants followed instructions from a man in a white lab coat (who was actually an actor), who prompted them to deliver electric shocks to a person in another room every time the other person answered a memory question incorrectly. The experiment was actually about how people defer to authority figures instead of acting independently. Although no one was actually being shocked in the other room, many participants continued to “shock,” at very high levels of voltage, the other person even after that person supposedly being shocked complained of chest pains and became unresponsive (Encina, 2003).

Just as clothing and personal style help us form impressions of others, so do physical body features. The degree to which we perceive people to be attractive influences our attitudes about and communication with them. Facial attractiveness and body weight tend to be common features used in the perception of physical attractiveness. In general people find symmetrical faces and nonoverweight bodies attractive. People perceived as attractive are generally evaluated more positively and seen as more kind and competent than people evaluated as less attractive. Additionally, people rated as attractive receive more eye contact, more smiles, and closer proximity to others (people stand closer to them). Unlike clothing and personal style, these physical features are more difficult, if not impossible, to change.

Finally, the material objects and people that surround a person influence our perception. In the MTV show Room Raiders, contestants go into the bedrooms of three potential dates and choose the one they want to go on the date with based on the impressions made while examining each potential date’s cleanliness, decorations, clothes, trophies and awards, books, music, and so on. Research supports the reliability of such impressions, as people have been shown to make reasonably accurate judgments about a person’s personality after viewing his or her office or bedroom (Hargie, 2011). Although the artificial scenario set up in Room Raiders doesn’t exactly match up with typical encounters, the link between environmental cues and perception is important enough for many companies to create policies about what can and can’t be displayed in personal office spaces. It would seem odd for a bank manager to have an Animal House poster hanging in his office, and that would definitely influence customers’ perceptions of the manager’s personality and credibility. The arrangement of furniture also creates impressions. Walking into a meeting and sitting on one end of a long boardroom table is typically less inviting than sitting at a round table or on a sofa.

Although some physical and environmental features are easier to change than others, it is useful to become aware of how these factors, which aren’t necessarily related to personality or verbal and nonverbal communication, shape our perceptions. These early impressions also affect how we interpret and perceive later encounters, which can be further explained through the halo and horn effects.

 

The Halo and Horn Effects

We have a tendency to adapt information that conflicts with our earlier impressions in order to make it fit within the frame we have established. This is known as selective distortion, and it manifests in the halo and horn effects. The angelic halo and devilish horn are useful metaphors for the lasting effects of positive and negative impressions.

The halo effect occurs when initial positive perceptions lead us to view later interactions as positive. The horn effect occurs when initial negative perceptions lead us to view later interactions as negative (Hargie, 2011). Since impressions are especially important when a person is navigating the job market, let’s imagine how the horn and halo effects could play out for a recent college graduate looking to land her first real job. Nell has recently graduated with her degree in communication studies and is looking to start her career as a corporate trainer. If one of Nell’s professors has a relationship with an executive at an area business, his positive verbal recommendation will likely result in a halo effect for Nell. Since the executive thinks highly of his friend the professor, and the professor things highly of Nell, then the executive will start his interaction with Nell with a positive impression and interpret her behaviors more positively than he would otherwise. The halo effect initiated by the professor’s recommendation may even lead the executive to dismiss or overlook some negative behaviors. Let’s say Nell doesn’t have a third party to help make a connection and arrives late for her interview. That negative impression may create a horn effect that carries through the interview. Even if Nell presents as competent and friendly, the negative first impression could lead the executive to minimize or ignore those positive characteristics, and the company may not hire her.

Culture, Personality, and Perception

Our cultural identities and our personalities affect our perceptions. Sometimes we are conscious of the effects and sometimes we are not. In either case, we have a tendency to favor others who exhibit cultural or personality traits that match up with our own. This tendency is so strong that is often leads us to assume that people we like are more similar to us than they actually are. Knowing more about how these forces influence our perceptions can help us become more aware of and competent in regards to the impressions we form of others.

Culture

Race, gender, sexual orientation, class, ability, nationality, and age all affect the perceptions that we make. The schemata through which we interpret what we perceive are influenced by our cultural identities. As we are socialized into various cultural identities, we internalize beliefs, attitudes, and values shared by others in our cultural group. Schemata held by members of a cultural identity group have similarities, but schemata held by different cultural groups may vary greatly. Unless we are exposed to various cultural groups and learn how others perceive us and the world around them, we will likely have a narrow or naïve view of the world and assume that others see things the way we do. Exposing yourself to and experiencing cultural differences in perspective doesn’t mean that you have to change your schema to match another cultural group’s. Instead, it may offer you a chance to better understand why and how your schemata were constructed the way they were.

As we have learned, perception starts with information that comes in through our senses. How we perceive even basic sensory information is influenced by our culture, as is illustrated in the following list:

  • Sight. People in different cultures “read” art in different ways, differing in terms of where they start to look at an image and the types of information they perceive and process.
  • Sound. “Atonal” music in some Asian cultures is unpleasing; it is uncomfortable to people who aren’t taught that these combinations of sounds are pleasing.
  • Touch. In some cultures it would be very offensive for a man to touch—even tap on the shoulder—a woman who isn’t a relative.
  • Taste. Tastes for foods vary greatly around the world. “Stinky tofu,” which is a favorite snack of people in Taipei, Taiwan’s famous night market, would likely be very off-putting in terms of taste and smell to many foreign tourists.
  • Smell. While US Americans spend considerable effort to mask natural body odor, which we typically find unpleasant, with soaps, sprays, and lotions, some other cultures would not find unpleasant or even notice what we consider “b.o.” Those same cultures may find a US American’s “clean” (soapy, perfumed, deodorized) smell unpleasant.

Aside from differences in reactions to basic information we take in through our senses, there is also cultural variation in how we perceive more complicated constructs, like marriage, politics, and privacy. In May of 2012, French citizens elected a new president. François Hollande moved into the presidential palace with his partner of five years, Valerie Trierweiler. They are the first unmarried couple in the country’s history to occupy the presidential palace (de la Baume, 2012). Even though new census statistics show that more unmarried couples are living together than ever before in the United States, many still disapprove of the practice, and it is hard to imagine a US president in a similar circumstance as France’s Hollande. Other places like Saudi Arabia and the Vatican have strong cultural aversions to such a practice, which could present problems when France’s first couple travels abroad.

As we’ve already learned, our brain processes information by putting it into categories and looking for predictability and patterns. The previous examples have covered how we do this with sensory information and with more abstract concepts like marriage and politics, but we also do this with people. When we categorize people, we generally view them as “like us” or “not like us.” This simple us/them split affects subsequent interaction, including impressions and attributions. For example, we tend to view people we perceive to be like us as more trustworthy, friendly, and honest than people we perceive to be not like us (Brewer, 1999). We are also more likely to use internal attribution to explain negative behavior of people we perceive to be different from us. If a person of a different race cuts another driver off in traffic, the driver is even more likely to attribute that action to the other driver’s internal qualities (thinking, for example, “He or she is inconsiderate and reckless!”) than they would someone of their own race. Having such inflexible categories can have negative consequences, and later we will discuss how forcing people into rigid categories leads to stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination. Of course, race isn’t the only marker of difference that influences our perceptions, and the problem with our rough categorization of people into “like us” and “not like us” categories is that these differences aren’t really as easy to perceive as we think. We cannot always tell whether or not someone is culturally like us through visual cues. For some cultural identities, like sexual orientation and ability, our awareness of any differences may only come when the other person discloses their identity to us.

You no doubt frequently hear people talking and writing about the “vast differences” between men and women. Whether it’s communication, athletic ability, expressing emotions, or perception, people will line up to say that women are one way and men are the other way. While it is true that gender affects our perception, the reason for this difference stems more from social norms than genetic, physical, or psychological differences between men and women. We are socialized to perceive differences between men and women, which leads us to exaggerate and amplify what differences there actually are (McCornack, 2007). We basically see the stereotypes and differences we are told to see, which helps to create a reality in which gender differences are “obvious.” However, numerous research studies have found that, especially in relation to multiple aspects of communication, men and women communicate much more similarly than differently. In summary, various cultural identities shape how we perceive others because beliefs, attitudes, and values of the cultural groups to which we belong are incorporated into our schema. Our personalities also present interesting perceptual advantages and challenges that we will now discuss.

 

Personality

I occasionally have potential employers of students I have taught or supervised call me to do “employment verifications” during which they ask general questions about the applicant. While they may ask a few questions about intellectual ability or academic performance, they typically ask questions that try to create a personality profile of the applicant. They basically want to know what kind of leader, coworker, and person he or she is. This is a smart move on their part, because our personalities greatly influence how we see ourselves in the world and how we perceive and interact with others.

Personality refers to a person’s general way of thinking, feeling, and behaving based on underlying motivations and impulses (McCornack, 2007). These underlying motivations and impulses form our personality traits. Personality traits are “underlying,” but they are fairly enduring once a person reaches adulthood. That is not to say that people’s personalities do not change, but major changes in personality are not common unless they result from some form of trauma. Although personality scholars believe there are thousands of personalities, they all comprise some combination of the same few traits. Much research has been done on personality traits, and the “Big Five” that are most commonly discussed are extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness (McCrea, 2001). These five traits appear to be representative of personalities across cultures, and you can read more about what each of these traits entails below. If you are interested in how you rank in terms of personality traits, there are many online tests you can take. A Big Five test can be taken at the following website: http://www.outofservice.com/bigfive.

The Big Five Personality Traits

  • Extraversion. Refers to a person’s interest in interacting with others. People with high extraversion are sociable and often called “extroverts.” People with low extraversion are less sociable and are often called “introverts.”
  • Agreeableness. Refers to a person’s level of trustworthiness and friendliness. People with high agreeableness are cooperative and likable. People with low agreeableness are suspicious of others and sometimes aggressive, which makes it more difficult for people to find them pleasant to be around.
  • Conscientiousness. Refers to a person’s level of self-organization and motivation. People with high conscientiousness are methodical, motivated, and dependable. People with low conscientiousness are less focused, less careful, and less dependable.
  • Neuroticism. Refers to a person’s level of negative thoughts regarding himself or herself. People high in neuroticism are insecure and experience emotional distress and may be perceived as unstable. People low in neuroticism are more relaxed, have less emotional swings, and are perceived as more stable.
  • Openness. Refers to a person’s willingness to consider new ideas and perspectives. People high in openness are creative and are perceived as open minded. People low in openness are more rigid and set in their thinking and are perceived as “set in their ways.”

Scholarship related to personality serves many purposes, and some of them tie directly to perception. Corporations and television studios spend millions of dollars on developing personality profiles and personality testing. Corporations can make hiring and promotion decisions based on personality test results, which can save them money and time if they can weed out those who don’t “fit” the position before they get in the door and drain resources. Television studios make casting decisions based on personality profiles because they know that certain personalities evoke strong and specific reactions from viewers. The reality television show Survivor has done more than one season where they bring back “Heroes and Villains,” which already indicates that the returning cast members made strong impressions on the show’s producers and audience members. Think about the reality television stars that you love to root for, want to see lose, and can’t stand to look at or look away from. Shows like Celebrity Rehab intentionally cast fading stars who already have strong personalities and emotional and addiction issues in order to create the kind of human train wrecks that attract millions of viewers. So why does this work?

It is likely that you have more in common with that reality TV star than you care to admit. We tend to focus on personality traits in others that we feel are important to our own personality. What we like in ourselves, we like in others, and what we dislike in ourselves, we dislike in others (McCornack, 2007). If you admire a person’s loyalty, then loyalty is probably a trait that you think you possess as well. If you work hard to be positive and motivated and suppress negative and unproductive urges within yourself, you will likely think harshly about those negative traits in someone else. After all, if you can suppress your negativity, why can’t they do the same? This way of thinking isn’t always accurate or logical, but it is common.

The concept of assumed similarity refers to our tendency to perceive others as similar to us. When we don’t have enough information about a person to know their key personality traits, we fill in the gaps—usually assuming they possess traits similar to those we see in ourselves. We also tend to assume that people have similar attitudes, or likes and dislikes, as us. If you set your friend up with a man you think she’ll really like only to find out there was no chemistry when they met, you may be surprised to realize your friend doesn’t have the same taste in men as you. Even though we may assume more trait and taste similarity between our significant others and ourselves than there actually is, research generally finds that while people do interpersonally group based on many characteristics including race, class, and intelligence, the findings don’t show that people with similar personalities group together (Beer & Watson, 2008).

In summary, personality affects our perception, and we all tend to be amateur personality scholars given the amount of effort we put into assuming and evaluating others’ personality traits. This bank of knowledge we accumulate based on previous interactions with people is used to help us predict how interactions will unfold and help us manage our interpersonal relationships. When we size up a person based on their personality, we are auditioning or interviewing them in a way to see if we think there is compatibility. We use these implicit personality theories to generalize a person’s overall personality from the traits we can perceive. The theories are “implicit” because they are not of academic but of experience-based origin, and the information we use to theorize about people’s personalities isn’t explicitly known or observed but implied. In other words, we use previous experience to guess other people’s personality traits. We then assume more about a person based on the personality traits we assign to them.

This process of assuming has its advantages and drawbacks. In terms of advantages, the use of implicit personality theories offers us a perceptual shortcut that can be useful when we first meet someone. Our assessment of their traits and subsequent assumptions about who they are as a person makes us feel like we “know the person,” which reduces uncertainty and facilitates further interaction. In terms of drawbacks, our experience-based assumptions aren’t always correct, but they are still persuasive and enduring. As we have already learned, first impressions carry a lot of weight in terms of how they influence further interaction. Positive and negative impressions formed early can also lead to a halo effect or a horn effect, which we discussed earlier. Personality-based impressions can also connect to impressions based on physical and environmental cues to make them even stronger. For example, perceiving another person as attractive can create a halo effect that then leads you to look for behavioral cues that you can then tie to positive personality traits. You may notice that the attractive person also says “please” and “thank you,” which increases his or her likeability. You may notice that the person has clean and fashionable shoes, which leads you to believe he or she is professional and competent but also trendy and hip. Now you have an overall positive impression of this person that will affect your subsequent behaviors (Beer & Watson, 2008). But how accurate were your impressions? If on your way home you realize you just bought a car from this person, who happened to be a car salesperson, that was $7,000 over your price range, you might have second thoughts about how good a person he or she actually is.

Key Takeaways

  • We use attributions to interpret perceptual information, specifically, people’s behavior. Internal attributions connect behavior to internal characteristics such as personality traits. External attributions connect behavior to external characteristics such as situational factors.
  • Two common perceptual errors that occur in the process of attribution are the fundamental attribution error and the self-serving bias.

    • The fundamental attribution error refers to our tendency to overattribute other people’s behaviors to internal rather than external causes.
    • The self-serving bias refers to our tendency to overattribute our successes to internal factors and overattribute our failures to external factors.
  • First and last impressions are powerful forces in the perception process. The primacy effect is a perceptual tendency to place more importance on initial impressions than later impressions. The recency effect is the perceptual tendency to place more importance on the most recent impressions over earlier impressions.
  • Physical and environmental cues such as clothing, grooming, attractiveness, and material objects influence the impressions that we form of people.
  • The halo effect describes a perceptual effect that occurs when initial positive impressions lead us to view later interactions as positive. The horn effect describes a perceptual effect that occurs when initial negative impressions lead us to view later interactions as negative.
  • Cultural identities such as race, gender, sexual orientation, class, ability, nationality, and age all affect the perceptions that we make about basic sensory information such as sounds and smells as well as larger concepts such as marriage and privacy. Despite the fact that much popular knowledge claims that women and men communicate very differently, communication processes for each gender are more similar than different.
  • Personality affects perception in many ways. Our personality traits, which are our underlying and enduring motivations for thinking and behaving the way we do, affect how we see others and ourselves. We use observed and implied personality traits to form impressions of others, which then influence how we act toward them

Exercises for Section 2

  1. Think of a recent conflict and how you explained the behavior that caused the conflict and subsequently formed impressions about the other person based on your perceptions. Briefly describe the conflict situation and then identify internal and external attributions for your behavior and the behavior of the other person. Is there any evidence of the fundamental attribution error or self-serving bias in this conflict encounter? If so, what?
  2. Describe a situation in which you believe the primacy and/or recency effect influenced your perceptions of a person or event.
  3. Has your perception of something ever changed because of exposure to cultural difference? For example, have you grown to like a kind of food, music, clothing, or other custom that you earlier perceived unfavorably?

 

Section Three: Perception Checking:

Section Three Learning Outcomes

  1. Discuss strategies for improving self-perception.
  2. Discuss strategies for improving perception of others.
  3. Employ perception checking to improve perception of self and others.

 

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“So far, we have learned about the perception process and how we perceive others and ourselves. Now we will turn to a discussion of how to improve our perception. Our self-perception can be improved by becoming aware of how schema, socializing forces, self-fulfilling prophecies, and negative patterns of thinking can distort our ability to describe and evaluate ourselves. How we perceive others can be improved by developing better listening and empathetic skills, becoming aware of stereotypes and prejudice, developing self-awareness through self-reflection, and engaging in perception checking” (Communication in the Real World, 2016).

As humans, we often assume that we are aware of, and even understand, what other people are thinking and feeling — of that our own perceptions of others are correct and updated. In truth, though, we usually do not take the time to clearly attempt to ascertain in a nonjudgmental and clarifying way through perception checking questions: “You seem upset;” “Are you?;” or “I get the impression that this exchange has hurt your feelings in some way. Is this true?” (Brookfield & Preskill, 2005). Gudykunst & Kim (1995) points out that one of the ways to reduce ambiguity and facilitate the process of intercultural communication is through frequent perception checking. Simply put, through , we describe what we perceive the other person to be thinking or feeling and then request clearly and in a non-threatening manner that the other person confirms or corrects our perception. According to Brookfield and Preskill (2005), perception checks send the valuable message to one’s interlocutor of another culture that you truly want to listen, observe, and then understand their communication, verbal or nonverbal. As we shall see, there is a necessary tie between perception checking and compassionate listening.

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is most simply defined as a “quality of listening which creates a safe container for people to be free to express themselves and to go to the level of their deep concerns….[It means] listening deeply to the needs and suffering of others and respecting their rights to their opinions…[forming the] basis of…successful dialogue, [which] can only take place when people are really ready to listen to each other and to themselves” (Hwoschinsky, 2006, p.3). To adequately practice the dynamic process of compassionate listening, then, perception checks, Brookfield and Preskill (2005) accentuate, are especially important in intercultural communication encounters. Given that individuals from different cultures sense, interpret, and understand the world in different ways, perception checks can help ameliorate the inherent ambiguity that is part of intercultural communication (Samovar, Porter, McDaniel, & Roy, 2017).

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In the process of successful intercultural communication, one need not overly worry about perception checks interrupting the flow of conversation and thus create a burden or barrier to effective communication. It is just the opposite, and, in fact, should take precedence over the discussion. Why?  If a perception check occurs, for example: “I heard you mention the term ‘class’ several times as you described your upbringing. I am wondering, are you saying that racism always has an underlying economic cause or is it primarily a finite issue? Can you explain that a bit more?” Another, less “technically structured” example of a simple perception checking question is: “Did I paraphrase your last comment correctly?” Note, the discussion itself stops so that the person of the other culture may think about and answer the given perception check. The conversation is allowed to check and clarify what was previously said and then confirm the perception check. Only after both interlocutors involved in the conversation have checked their perceptions and made clear their meanings so as they are satisfied with the meaning and nuance of the conversation can the discussion continue (Brookfield and Preskill, 2005).

Brookfield and Preskill (2005) remind us to consider that though the natural flow of the conversation was interrupted, it was necessary to clarify the accuracy of the communication and enhance a mutual common understanding lest the meaning and message of the conversation be lost or diminished and cause unneeded discomfort or even halt the conversation.

Ren Olive submitted photo used with permission from the photographer

Perception-checking is vital to making sure that all involved are interpreting the meaning and message fully and accurately. Importantly, this process gives those whose voice is habitually misunderstood and are victims of miscommunication, for a number of reasons, e.g., a persecuted minority or practitioner of an alternative lifestyle incongruent with the dominant culture, etc., an opportunity to put forth or communicate honestly and accurately the message or part of their life-narrative that they may desperately want to communicate. Such a process, then, allows those persecuted and misunderstood to express their narrative or story in a dignified, humane fashion, thus giving them an opportunity to express their felt human experience. When creating a perception check, you will use three steps, as quoted below from the free open education resource textbook, Communication in the Real World: An Introduction to Communication Studies (2016):

Step 1: Describe the behavior or situation without evaluating or jvudging it.

Step 2: Think of some possible interpretations of the behavior, being aware of attributions and other influences on the perception process.

Step 3: Verify what happened and ask for clarification from the other person’s perspective. Be aware of punctuation, since the other person likely experienced the event differently than you”
(p.110).

Perception Format:

creative commons photo from burst.shopify.com

During a perception check, the standard format is as follows:

Step 1: Perception checks include “I” language and a clearly stated observation or fact: “I heard you mention ____.

Step 2: This is followed by 2 possible interpretations: I am wondering if ___ or ___ is the case for you?

Step 3: Finally, the perception check is completed with a clarification request: Can you clarify?”

Sample Perception Check

Challenges to Perception

Communication Accommodation Theory (CAT)

The following video (prepared by students of (MC244) Bachelor of Mass Communication (Hons), Advertising UiTM Shah Alam Selangor, Malaysia), demonstrates that awkward shifting of one’s communication style based upon the desire to fit in when we perceive that we are not matching the communication styles of others.

Principles

In the video skit above, the students  are demonstrating  “Communication Accommodation Theory.” The following explanation is from ” Communication Accommodation Theory” by Daniel Usera & contributing authors, LibreTexts is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA .

First conceived by communication professor Howard Giles in 1971, Communication Accommodation Theory (CAT) was mainly about speech, but then adapted to involve verbal and nonverbal communication (Hordila-Vatamanescu, 2010). Giles described developing the theoretical perspective in his graduate school days in the United Kingdom, and muses that he still is constantly noticing new ways people accommodate others, such as when his wife lost her voice for a few days, and others would whisper to her, thinking she was whispering for another reason (Gallois et al., 2016).

The theory is about convergence and divergence in accommodation, and says that communicators are likely to accommodate the person they are speaking with by adopting their mode of communication. Soliz, Thorson, and Rittenour say accommodation is performed for seeking approval, inclusion, affiliation, or interpersonal goals,” while nonaccommodation serves to highlight differences between people (2009, p. 821).

Divergent communicators maintain their own way of communicating, and then the communication differs from the other communicator. There is also the concept of over accommodating, as Hordila-Vatamanescu (2010) says, and this means they exaggerate the accommodation. There are three types of over accommodation:

“The first is sensory where people tend to over adapt to others who are perceived as limited in their abilities. The second is dependency, where the person who is talking, speaks to others as if they’re in a lower status than them. Lastly, intergroup occurs when the speakers place listeners in cultural groups without acknowledging individual uniqueness” (Hordila-Vatamanescu, 2010, p. 281).

Within CAT, however it occurs, it’s important to note that communication happens within a context, as always, and that there is always negotiation of relationships within a conversation, including power within a relationship, when communicating. Based on these stereotypes of outgroup members, expectations may arise about people from the culture. Norms of accommodation may appear. When over accommodating happens, it may make the communicator seem condescending, which hopefully, the person does not desire. However, when done well, “communication accommodation becomes a mutual feeling of identification between the source and the receiver” (Hordila-Vatamanescu, 2010, p. 283). Communicators begin to feel more similarity and commonality, which begets affection, or likeability. When people from different cultures accommodate by moving to Texas and trying to act friendlier to others, people will feel more commonality, even if the person from another state wasn’t used to acting friendly to acquaintances.

Applications

CAT can be used in many contexts, as in between cultures, ages, genders, and virtual communities. Between cultures, people may become more comfortable with someone from a different culture if they mirror nonverbally, and topics of conversation that would interest the other.

For instance, communication accommodation was seen when a Muslim family in a suburb in Texas invited their white neighbors to attend the home petting zoo birthday party of their three-year-old child. At the party, the food was halal, as is customary to the culture of the Muslim family, and most of the party-goers were family members. The white family had older children and instructed their daughter to dress a bit more conservatively than her normal short-shorts as an accommodating nonverbal gesture. Both parties had accommodating behaviors and communication.

Many times, accommodating behaviors occur between people of different ages. If there is a big age difference, for instance, professors need to ensure they are giving examples that are relevant to their students. For instance, using an example of nonverbal communication accommodation between cultures could come from the movie European Vacation, which was created in the 1980s, but a more recent example would be something like the television show Blackish.

Over accommodation is often seen in communication between different age groups, as in communication between parents and children, neither of whom may realize they are maturing as fast as they are. One study discussed CAT and estrangement of adult children, and Rittenour et al (2018) found that there were about an equal number of instances of parents using accommodation (65) and over accommodation (61), which is seen as negative, and fewer cases of under accommodation (30), which is also seen as negative.

Cross-gender communication may be another instance where CAT is employed, and stereotypes are often used in this type of conversation. What’s most important in cross-gender communication is not to make assumptions, and let the person communicate for themselves. Respond to how they respond. Mansplaining is a popular term in which a male explains a topic to a female on which the female is more of an expert the male, yet the male talks about it incessantly anyway. CAT can also be seen in environments of virtual communities, as “it may account for discovering how people perceive, assume and express their identity in a boundless community” (Hordila-Vatamanescu, 2010, p. 287).

Another example of using CAT to study mediated communication is CAT through textisms, which are when people use emojis, shorten words, or use incorrect capitalization in a text. For instance, “R u going 2 the store? :-)” instead of “Are you going to the store?” A study looking at gender and whether people like each other and whether power affects the way people use textisms found that there is a relationship in the use of textisms and whether people like each other and whether they have unequal power balance in a relationship (Adams, Miles, Dunbar, & Giles, 2018). There was a significant correlation between liking and people using more textisms (Adams et al., 2018). Giles (2016) has taken a look at CAT over the years, and showed how it’s truly become multi-disciplinary, it’s studied in many languages, and it’s still relevant today. All of this is amusingly appropriate for a chapter on culture and interpersonal communication.

Activity: CAT in Action

Consider a friend or acquaintance that you have who is from a different culture. Think about a time you have enacted CAT within a conversation interculturally. How did it affect the conversation? Talk with that person now about what they thought was happening in the conversation, and whether they noticed the accommodation was happening. Discuss your observations in a discussion.

Additional Tips for Better Communication

Beware of Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

Self-fulfilling prophecies are thought and action patterns in which a person’s false belief triggers a behavior that makes the initial false belief actually or seemingly come true (Guyll et al., 2010). For example, let’s say a student’s biology lab instructor is a Chinese person who speaks English as a second language. The student falsely believes that the instructor will not be a good teacher because he speaks English with an accent. Because of this belief, the student doesn’t attend class regularly and doesn’t listen actively when she does attend. Because of these behaviors, the student fails the biology lab, which then reinforces her original belief that the instructor wasn’t a good teacher.

Although the concept of self-fulfilling prophecies was originally developed to be applied to social inequality and discrimination, it has since been applied in many other contexts, including interpersonal communication. This research has found that some people are chronically insecure, meaning they are very concerned about being accepted by others but constantly feel that other people will dislike them. This can manifest in relational insecurity, which is again based on feelings of inferiority resulting from social comparison with others perceived to be more secure and superior. Such people often end up reinforcing their belief that others will dislike them because of the behaviors triggered by their irrational belief. Take the following scenario as an example: An insecure person assumes that his date will not like him. During the date he doesn’t engage in much conversation, discloses negative information about himself, and exhibits anxious behaviors. Because of these behaviors, his date forms a negative impression and suggests they not see each other again, reinforcing his original belief that the date wouldn’t like him. The example shows how a pattern of thinking can lead to a pattern of behavior that reinforces the thinking, and so on. Luckily, experimental research shows that self-affirmation techniques can be successfully used to intervene in such self-fulfilling prophecies. Thinking positive thoughts and focusing on personality strengths can stop this negative cycle of thinking and has been shown to have positive effects on academic performance, weight loss, and interpersonal relationships (Stinston et al., 2011).

Create and Maintain Supporting Interpersonal Relationships

Aside from giving yourself affirming messages to help with self-perception, it is important to find interpersonal support. Although most people have at least some supportive relationships, many people also have people in their lives who range from negative to toxic. When people find themselves in negative relational cycles, whether it is with friends, family, or romantic partners, it is difficult to break out of those cycles. But we can all make choices to be around people that will help us be who we want to be and not be around people who hinder our self-progress. This notion can also be taken to the extreme, however. It would not be wise to surround yourself with people who only validate you and do not constructively challenge you, because this too could lead to distorted self-perceptions.

Beware of Distorted Paterns of Thinking and Acting

You already know from our discussion of attribution errors that we all have perceptual biases that distort our thinking. Many of these are common, and we often engage in distorted thinking without being conscious of it. Learning about some of the typical negative patterns of thinking and acting may help us acknowledge and intervene in them. One such pattern involves self-esteem and overcompensation.

People with low self-esteem may act in ways that overcompensate for their feelings of low self-worth and other insecurities. Whether it’s the businessman buying his midlife crisis Corvette, the “country boy” adding monster tires to his truck, or the community leader who wears several carats of diamonds everywhere she goes, people often turn to material possessions to try to boost self-esteem. While these purchases may make people feel better in the short term, they may have negative financial effects that can exacerbate negative self-perceptions and lead to interpersonal conflict. People also compensate for self-esteem with their relational choices. A person who is anxious about his career success may surround himself with people who he deems less successful than himself. In this case, being a big fish in a small pond helps some people feel better about themselves when they engage in social comparison.

People can also get into a negative thought and action cycle by setting unrealistic goals and consistently not meeting them. Similar to a self-fulfilling prophecy, people who set unrealistic goals can end up with negative feelings of self-efficacy, which as we learned earlier, can negatively affect self-esteem and self-concept. The goals we set should be challenging but progressive, meaning we work to meet a realistic goal, then increase our expectations and set another goal, and so on.

Some people develop low self-esteem because they lack accurate information about themselves, which may be intentional or unintentional. A person can intentionally try to maintain high self-esteem by ignoring or downplaying negative comments and beliefs and focusing on positive evaluations. While this can be a good thing, it can also lead to a distorted self-concept. There is a middle ground between beating yourself up or dwelling on the negative and ignoring potentially constructive feedback about weaknesses and missing opportunities to grow as a person. Conversely, people who have low self-esteem or negative self-concepts may discount or ignore positive feedback. To wrap up this section, I’d like to turn to one of my favorite shows and a great source for examples relevant to the perception process: American Idol.

I’ve always enjoyed showing clips from American Idol auditions in my class when I teach about self-perception. As you probably know, the season always starts with audition footage shot in various cities. The range of singing abilities, not to mention personalities, of those who show up for a chance to sing in front of the judges leads millions of viewers to keep tuning in. While it’s obvious that the producers let some people through who they know don’t have a chance at making it on the show, they also know that certain personalities make for good reality television viewing. I’ve often found myself wondering, “Do these people really think they can sing?” The answer is sometimes a very clear “Yes!” Sure, some are there just to make a spectacle and hopefully make it on TV, but there are many who actually believe they have singing abilities—even to the point that they challenge and discount the judges’ comments.

During the contestant’s tearful and/or angry postrejection interview, they are often shown standing with their family and friends, who are also surprised at the judges’ decision. These contestants could potentially avoid this emotional ending by following some of the previous tips. It’s good that they have supportive interpersonal relationships, but people’s parents and friends are a little biased in their feedback, which can lead to a skewed self-concept. These contestants could also set incremental goals. Singing at a local event or even at a karaoke bar might have helped them gain more accurate information about their abilities and led them to realize they didn’t have what it takes to be an “American idol.”

Overcoming Barriers to Perceiving Others

There are many barriers that prevent us from competently perceiving others. While some are more difficult to overcome than others, they can all be addressed by raising our awareness of the influences around us and committing to monitoring, reflecting on, and changing some of our communication habits. Whether it is our lazy listening skills, lack of empathy, or stereotypes and prejudice, various filters and blinders influence how we perceive and respond to others.

Beware of Stereotypes and Prejudice

Stereotypes are sets of beliefs that we develop about groups, which we then apply to individuals from that group. Stereotypes are schemata that are taken too far, as they reduce and ignore a person’s individuality and the diversity present within a larger group of people. Stereotypes can be based on cultural identities, physical appearance, behavior, speech, beliefs, and values, among other things, and are often caused by a lack of information about the target person or group (Guyll et al., 2010). Stereotypes can be positive, negative, or neutral, but all run the risk of lowering the quality of our communication.

While the negative effects of stereotypes are pretty straightforward in that they devalue people and prevent us from adapting and revising our schemata, positive stereotypes also have negative consequences. For example, the “model minority” stereotype has been applied to some Asian cultures in the United States. Seemingly positive stereotypes of Asian Americans as hardworking, intelligent, and willing to adapt to “mainstream” culture are not always received as positive and can lead some people within these communities to feel objectified, ignored, or overlooked.

Stereotypes can also lead to double standards that point to larger cultural and social inequalities. There are many more words to describe a sexually active female than a male, and the words used for females are disproportionately negative, while those used for males are more positive. Since stereotypes are generally based on a lack of information, we must take it upon ourselves to gain exposure to new kinds of information and people, which will likely require us to get out of our comfort zones. When we do meet people, we should base the impressions we make on describable behavior rather than inferred or secondhand information. When stereotypes negatively influence our overall feelings and attitudes about a person or group, prejudiced thinking results.

Prejudice is negative feelings or attitudes toward people based on their identity or identities. Prejudice can have individual or widespread negative effects. At the individual level, a hiring manager may not hire a young man with a physical disability (even though that would be illegal if it were the only reason), which negatively affects that one man. However, if pervasive cultural thinking that people with physical disabilities are mentally deficient leads hiring managers all over the country to make similar decisions, then the prejudice has become a social injustice. In another example, when the disease we know today as AIDS started killing large numbers of people in the early 1980s, response by some health and government officials was influenced by prejudice. Since the disease was primarily affecting gay men, Haitian immigrants, and drug users, the disease was prejudged to be a disease that affected only “deviants” and therefore didn’t get the same level of attention it would have otherwise. It took many years, investment of much money, and education campaigns to help people realize that HIV and AIDS do not prejudge based on race or sexual orientation and can affect any human.

Engage in Self-Refelction

A good way to improve your perceptions and increase your communication competence in general is to engage in self-reflection. If a communication encounter doesn’t go well and you want to know why, your self-reflection will be much more useful if you are aware of and can recount your thoughts and actions.

Self-reflection can also help us increase our cultural awareness. Our thought process regarding culture is often “other focused,” meaning that the culture of the other person or group is what stands out in our perception. However, the old adage “know thyself” is appropriate, as we become more aware of our own culture by better understanding other cultures and perspectives. Developing cultural self-awareness often requires us to get out of our comfort zones. Listening to people who are different from us is a key component of developing self-knowledge. This may be uncomfortable, because our taken-for-granted or deeply held beliefs and values may become less certain when we see the multiple perspectives that exist.

We can also become more aware of how our self-concepts influence how we perceive others. We often hold other people to the standards we hold for ourselves or assume that their self-concept should be consistent with our own. For example, if you consider yourself a neat person and think that sloppiness in your personal appearance would show that you are unmotivated, rude, and lazy, then you are likely to think the same of a person you judge to have a sloppy appearance. So asking questions like “Is my impression based on how this person wants to be, or how I think this person should want to be?” can lead to enlightening moments of self-reflection. Asking questions in general about the perceptions you are making is an integral part of perception checking, which we will discuss next.

Checking Perception

Again, perception checking is a strategy to help us monitor our reactions to and perceptions about people and communication. There are some internal and external strategies we can use to engage in perception checking. In terms of internal strategies, review the various influences on perception that we have learned about in this chapter and always be willing to ask yourself, “What is influencing the perceptions I am making right now?” Even being aware of what influences are acting on our perceptions makes us more aware of what is happening in the perception process. In terms of external strategies, we can use other people to help verify our perceptions.

The cautionary adage “Things aren’t always as they appear” is useful when evaluating your own perceptions. Sometimes it’s a good idea to bounce your thoughts off someone, especially if the perceptions relate to some high-stakes situation. But not all situations allow us the chance to verify our perceptions. Preventable crimes have been committed because people who saw something suspicious didn’t report it even though they had a bad feeling about it. Of course, we have to walk a line between being reactionary and being too cautious, which is difficult to manage. We all know that we are ethically and sometimes legally required to report someone to the police who is harming himself or herself or others, but sometimes the circumstances are much more uncertain.

Section Three Key Takeaways

  • We can improve self-perception by avoiding reliance on rigid schemata, thinking critically about socializing institutions, intervening in self-fulfilling prophecies, finding supportive interpersonal networks, and becoming aware of cycles of thinking that distort our self-perception.
  • We can improve our perceptions of others by developing empathetic listening skills, becoming aware of stereotypes and prejudice, and engaging in self-reflection.
  • Perception checking is a strategy that allows us to monitor our perceptions of and reactions to others and communication.

Exercises for Section Three

  1. Which barrier(s) to self-perception do you think present the most challenge to you and why? What can you do to start to overcome these barriers?
  2. Which barrier(s) to perceiving others do you think present the most challenge to you and why? What can you do to start to overcome these barriers?
  3. Recount a recent communication encounter in which perception checking may have led to a more positive result. What could you have done differently?

 

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Attributions

Communication in the Real World. (2016). The University of Minnesota. https://open.lib.umn.edu/communication/chapter/2-1-perception-process/#jones_1.0-ch02_s01_s01_f01

“Communication Accommodation Theory” by Daniel Usera & contributing authors, LibreTexts is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA .

 

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