What Is Perception?

Perception is the process whereby we acquire information about our environment through our five senses: hearing, sight, touch, taste and smell.

We use these senses to gather information about physical objects, people and events we come in contact. Then we organize and interpret the information to explain what is happening around us.

The way we perceive people and events has an effect on the way we communicate about them. We perceive through a frame of reference—a set of interlocking facts, ideas, beliefs, values and attitudes. This frame of reference provides the basis for our understanding of people, events and experiences because it filters our perceptions.

What's this?

As we take in new information, we evaluate it in terms of our frame of reference and either reject it because it doesn’t fit our frame of reference (our ideas, beliefs, values and attitudes); or we make use of it to support our existing frame of reference; or we use it to expand our existing frame of reference (cf. Wilson, Hantz & Hanna 1989).

The highlight of perception is that it is a personal process which provides each of us with a unique view of the world. It does not however always provide an accurate representation of the world. Your perception of a person, object or event is different from the actual person, object or event.

The uniqueness in our culture, race, age, gender, geographic location, and life experiences provides the basis for our understanding of people, events and experiences because it filters our perceptions. Confronted with issues such as race, relationships, gender equity, the economic crisis, and the political divide, many of us see different realities.

It is not uncommon for our perceptions of events and people to conflict. In fact, differences in the ways we see, hear, taste, smell, or feel specific stimuli—that is, differences in how we perceive—is a consequence of who we are, where we are, and what we choose to see.

Our perceptions are frequently inaccurate and our understanding of many situations can often be distorted. In fact, some people distort the information that comes to them through their senses to such an extent that their perception of themselves, others, and the events around them have little resemblance to reality. Consequently, their communication often loses its potential effectiveness (cf. Verderber 1990).

Illustration I

Illustration is provided below, to observe how our sense organs can create perceptual inaccuracies. Look carefully the two figures below. Which appears longer?

The Müller-Lyer illusion
Fig1. The Müller-Lyer illusion

This is a well-known phenomenon called the Müller-Lyer illusion. If you’ve never seen the figure before, you would probably trust the evidence of your eyes that line B is longer than line A. Those who have seen it before will know that the two lines are the same length. You might want to measure to be quite sure.

Our next discussion, the perception processOpens in new window; examines the physical process of perception and provides us with a foundation on which to understand the role of perception in communication.