Perception & Attribution

What is Perception?

A person's mental image of the world. What you think IS (as opposed to "should be").

The Perceptual Process

Two key elements: attention and organization.

The Old Woman/Young Woman Illusion.


In any situation we only pay attention to a few things. Your mind unconsciously filters out most of what is going on around you. At some level, you mind is probably aware of a lot of things. Think about the people sitting next to you in a class. What are they wearing? What movements are they making (are they breathing?)? What do all the chairs look like? What's on the walls? What sounds are coming from outside? You're not really aware of all those things. Consider your own body. Are you aware of your pulse, breathing, feel of the chair under you, the feeling of your clothes on your body?

How come my dog doesn't wake up if I start petting her while she's asleep, but if a car drives into the driveway she goes from sleeping to barking in less than a second? Her mind is filtering things.

So what does grab your attention?

What else determines what you will attend to?


Even when you do become aware of these things, there is considerable pre-processing that is done by brain before it reaches your consciousness. If you are watching a professor in class, do you see him or her raising and lowering his arm in front of the blackboard, or do you see him writing on the blackboard? We see the world in terms of meaningful, functional units, not simple movements. When my mouth is moving and sounds are coming out, I am speaking.

Animal perception is not like computer/machine perception. There is filtering and meaning all the way down to the simplest level. It is not like the eye is a video camera, and the brain then makes sense of the images. Instead, even the eye filters things.

Perception is affected by knowledge -- by what the brain already knows. Knowledge is itself organized. For example, similar things are stored together. 

The mind also creates schemas, frames and scripts. After going to enough restaurants, you learn the pattern of how things go:

  1. (i) stop just the door and wait for someone to greet you
  2. (ii) you tell them how many in your party
  3. (iii) may be asked if smoking or non-smoking
  4. (iv) follow person to table
  5. (v) if fancy restaurant allow waiter to pull out seat for your, push it back in, lay napkin on lap . Etc.

All situations have behavioral norms that get internalized by participants so that they know what to expect. This is turn determines what they find to be unusual or special. For example, a person screaming and rolling on the floor is not a big deal in a mental ward, but it would be highly noticeable in a classroom.

It's not just behavior its presence and absence of features: types of clothing, such as uniforms on waitresses in cocktail bars, color of walls in schools, size of hallways, sliding doors to porches, swinging doors for kitchens etc.

Some schemas are cultural -- you learn them from others, from books, TV, institutions. Others are experiential -- from mundane, what happens at restaurants, to how to have a romantic relationship.

Perceptual Distortions

The fact that mind stores information in schemas which in turn are built from experience means that you can comprehend and recall situations extremely well. For example, one glance at a new restaurant and you understand the whole layout, because you understand restaurants in general. Another example is language acquisition by children.

But schemas are also a source of errors, in particular false recalls of usual events and omission of unusual ones. Two interesting papers you can read:

Schemas also facilitate and hinder learning. For example, experiments show that people have trouble memorizing who is friends with whom in a group unless the friendships are transitive: that is, if A is friends with B, and B is friends with C, then it is also true that A is friends with C.

Stereotypes are a kind of schema that often have problematic consequences in terms of justice. In the past women were seen as too flighty and flaky to be entrusted with voting, so they were not allowed to vote. Blacks are often seen as dumb, violent and lazy. Men are often seen as aggressive, competitive and sexual predators. The consequences of these stereotypes, besides the obvious, is that stories about individuals are often judged as true simply because they fit preconceptions about the class. For example, it is easy for people to believe that a crime was caused by a black man. Similarly, accusations of sexual harassment tend to stick even without evidence because people believe that "men are like that".

Another interesting phenomenon is the halo effect. This is where one characteristic of something or someone affects perception of all the other characteristics. For example, if medical doctors are often asked their opinion about financial matters. Consumers often buy a product because it is by a company that makes other products they like.

A curious characteristic of human thinking processes is projection. This is where you perceive others in ways that really reflect yourself. For example, dishonest people tend to see dishonesty in others.



Attribution refers to how people in situations like the workplace construct explanations of other people's behavior. People are not exactly rocket scientists: these explanations can be highly simplified and strongly biased. What is interesting and helpful is that people's biases tend to be systematic and predictable.

For example, people tend to overestimate personal/individual causes (abilities, motives, morals) and tend to underestimate situational causes, like nature of the job, compensation system, the economy, luck, the percentage of the population who are young. For example, people attribute the state of the economy to the President. But scientific work on the topic suggests that Presidents have little effect on the economies during their tenure (but can have big effects on the economy years later).

Another kind of bias occurs with the nature of a person's participation in a situation, and how it comes out. For example, if a student gets an A on a test, the student thinks it was because he or she is so smart. But if they get an F, it's because the teacher is a jerk, or the book is lousy, or some other reason. In general, people seem to think this way:

Another basic principle is that people tend to attribute motives to people's behavior. So when people don't behave as you expect them to, you think they are doing it on purpose (usually, just to annoy you). In other words, people tend to assume a common understanding of a situation, but different motives and interests. They also tend to assume that other people do everything consciously: no oversight is truly an oversight, no inconsiderate action was just thoughtless.

Copyright 1996 Stephen P. Borgatti Revised: October 22, 2001 Go to Home page