Gombrich’s Perception Theory

The art historian, Gombrich, propounded a theory which shows the relationship between perception and the way in which works of art are expressed and interpreted.

Earlier in this topic, we defined perceptionOpens in new window as the process by which we acquire information about our environment through our senses. We also said that this information is selected, organized and interpreted through a frame of reference.

Another way of explaining this process is to say that we represent such information to ourselves by creating a mental image of what we know.

Artists have the ability to communicate their mental images or interpretations of the world, by using the medium in which they are best able to express themselves — literature, poetry, music, painting, and so on.

Gombrich (1978) is interested in the fact that different artists represent the world in different ways. He suggests that the diversity of representations comes about because the artist’s eye is never “innocent”.

When a painter, for instance, begins to depict a scene, he does not simply begin painting what he sees. His frame of reference filters what he sees and how he represents it. His expectations, as well as the selection, organization and interpretation of the scene play a part in the way he communicates his image of the world.

The artist's frame of reference also contains definite schemata, that is, rules, conventions and styles of art which he has inherited from his culture and from previous artists. These schemataOpens in new window provide a framework which guides the artist’s interpretation of reality and the styleOpens in new window he uses to express his interpretation in a work of art.

The viewers of the work of art also interpret the work according to their frame of reference. That is why their understanding of the work of art need not necessarily coincide with that of the artists or with that of other viewers. In other words, perception plays a role in the way we express ourselves in art and in the way we interpret it.

Gombrich’s theory confirms the view we put forward at the beginning of this discussion that our perceptions do not always provide us with an accurate picture of the world.

The importance of the theory for the study of communication is that, by providing us with insight into the communication of art, we are better able to understand the role of perception in our everyday communication encounters.

We turn now to a consideration of the way we perceive or create a mental image of ourselves and of other people, and how these perceptions influence our relationships.


The way in which people perceive themselves creates the mental image or self-concept they have of themselves. That image often differs from the concept others have of them.

Self-concept can be described as everything that people think and feel about themselves. Your self-concept is thus a collection of perceptions of who and what you are. It includes your appearance, physical and mental capabilities, attitudes and beliefs, strengths and weaknesses (cf. Verderber 1990).

It is this mental image that is communicated to others through the way you behave in a particular situation. People are not born with a self-concept; rather, it is shaped by our relationships with others. Think about the effects the messages of others have on you, especially those you respect.

You will probably agree that positive messages make you feel accepted, worthwhile, valued, lovable and significant, whereas negative messages tend to make you feel small, worthless, left out, unloved or insignificant.

In general, the more positive you feel about factors such as your physical appearance, capabilities, and the impression others have of you, the more positive your self-concept and your communication about yourself. The more negative you feel about yourself and the impression others have of you, the more negative your self-concept and the way you communicate about yourself.

From a communicological point of view, the self-concept you have as an adult is the outcome of perceptions that have been provided by your parents, teachers, friends, and others since birth. If you think about the process of perception we discussed earlier, you can understand why the image you have of yourself can be distorted.

The element of subjectivity in selecting information, organizing and interpreting it, can result in an inaccurate perception of yourself. A problem is that such inaccuracies often cause self-fulfilling prophecies.

Self-fulling prophecies Opens in new window occur when our expectations of an event help create the very conditions that allow the event to happen. Self-fulfilling prophecies can have a positive or negative effect.

Susan’s parents, for instance, always praise her efforts and tell her that she will be a very good student at school. As a result, she strives to live up to their expectations and studies hard. When faced with an examination, she is sure that she will acquit herself well. As a result of her positive self-concept, she prepares carefully, enters the examination hall with confidence, and does well.

Eunice, on the other hand, is constantly criticized at home and told that she will never amount to much. She has a poor self-concept which causes her to be inattentive at school and she performs below her potential ability. Because she anticipates that she will not perform well in the examination, she is nervous and worried when she enters the examination hall and, as she predicted, does poorly.

Self-fulling prophecies are usually carried over into adulthood and influence, for example, the way we perform at work or the quality of our interpersonal relationshipsOpens in new window.

Improving Self-concept

Most of us would like to improve the image we have of ourselves. Improving self-concept is largely a matter of deliberately becoming aware of your communication behavior to determine how it has been influenced by perception.

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Learn to monitor the positive and negative feedback that others send you and adjust your behavior accordingly. Some individuals who were raised by overly critical parents, for example, find it difficult to accept the positive comments about themselves they receive from others. Others simply choose to ignore the negative feedback they receive.

It is also important to be aware accurately you perceive the context in which you are communicating. You may regard yourself as a humourist because people usually laugh at your jokes. When you are being interviewed for a job, however, you are expected to answer certain questions carefully rather than relate anecdotesOpens in new window that would go down well at a party.

Perception of Others

How do we form perceptions of the people with whom we come into contact? For example, you are introduced to Peter at a conference and would like to find out which company he represents. Before you even start a conversation, you form an impression of him.

This impression influences your reactions to him and determines what you will say and how you will say it. If you perceive him as arrogant and self-centered, your communication will be different than if you perceive him as friendly and outgoing.

It is difficult to explain how such impressions are formed, but they are certainly related to your perception of him. His nonverbal communication—his tone of voice or the manner in which he shook your hand—could have created the impression; perhaps his clothing or his postureOpens in new window contributed to the impression.

Your interpretation of the information about Peter your brain selected and organized has been influenced by your expectations—your past experiences of people which in turn contribute to your frame of reference—and create your perception of Peter.

The problem is that we tend to take our perceptions for granted without considering whether they are correct. At times our impressions are so inaccurate that our understanding of people and situations is distorted. An awareness of how inaccuracies in our perception of others occurs can help to improve our relationships.

Determinants of Perceptual Inaccuracies

  1. Emotional state
    The feelings people experience at a particular time affect the nature of perception. First impressions are especially vulnerable to fluctuations in mood. When you are feeling low or irritable, your perception of others is generally more negative than if you are having a good day. Think about how your feelings may have affected your perception before acting on first impressions.
  2. Selective perception
    Selective perception refers to the fact that people choose information according to their existing attitudes, values and beliefs. Briefly, it means that people see what they want to see and hear what they want to hear.

    For instance, you tend to think highly of a person you like , and perceive only the positive side of her personality. The negative traits of that person, which may be apparent to other people, are often overlooked or ignored.
  3. Halo effect
    The halo effect occurs when we form perceptions of people based on the observation of a single characteristic which they display. We allow that characteristic to influence our impressions of that person without first verifying them.

    In an experiment described by Tubbs and Moss (1991:42) half the students in an economics class at the Melbourne Institute of Technology were given a note in which they were told that their new lecturer was considered to be a rather warm person, industrious, critical, and determined.

    The other half were given a note which told them that he was considered to be a rather cold person, industrious, critical, practical, and determined. After the lecturer had finished speaking, the students were asked to rate him on fifteen characteristics. Those who were given “warm” note described the lecturer as social, popular and informal.

    Those who read the “cold” description felt he was formal and self-centered. It appears that a halo effect can work to a person’s advantage or disadvantage, depending on whether the perception is favorable or unfavorable.
  4. Stereotyping
    As we form impressions of other people, we tend to classify them into categories on the basis of their characteristics. We put them into groups based on their race, religion, occupation, accent or socio-economic level.

    Thus we think about a teenager, a foreigner, a lawyer, or a trouble-maker and assume that they will display all the characteristics we have come to associate with that type. Furthermore, the way we communicate with them will be based on the way we expect them to behave, rather than responding to each person as an individual.

Stereotype is the term used to describe the mental picture we form, and the behavior we display, when we classify according to general type, rather than attending to the specific characteristics displayed by an individual example of that type (Ellis & McClintock 1990:21).

Stereotyping provides a convenient way for summing people up, but it can be very limiting and cause us to arrive at conclusions which are not only wrong, but have negative consequences for interpersonal relationships.

Magriet, for instance, has been told that all accountants are dull and boring. When she meets Stefan, an accountancy student, she automatically perceives him as dull and boring without taking the trouble to get to know him.

To avoid the tendency to classify people, we need to make the effort to regard them as individuals: relationships are formed with individuals, not with stereotypes.

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Tips to Improving Your Perception of Others

Improving the accuracy of your perceptions of others is largely a process of being mentally aware that one’s initial perceptions are not always correct and that they may need to be revised.

Verderber (1990:50-54) provides guidelines for constructing a more realistic impression of others and for assessing the validity of one’s own perceptions.

  1. Actively question the accuracy of your perceptions.
    Many people act on their perceptions as though they were reality, saying “I know what I saw”. Recognizing the possibility of error motivates one to seek further verification and avoids erroneous impressions.
  2. Seek more information to verify perceptions.
    Taking the trouble to gather more information about people that one meets helps to determine whether the original perception is accurate.
  3. Talk with the people with whom you are forming perceptions.
    The best way to get information about people and to get to know them is to talk with them. Some perceptions may still be inaccurate, but the likelihood of accuracy is increased.
  4. Realize that perceptions of people need to change over time
    People’s attitudes and behavior often change, and one’s perceptions of them need to change accordingly. It may be easier to hang onto one’s original perceptions, but communication based on outdated, inaccurate perceptions can be more costly than revising one’s perceptions.
  5. Check perceptions verbally before proceeding.
    To avoid drawing the wrong conclusions from other people’s nonverbal behavior, it is important to make a perception check, a verbal statement that reflects one’s understanding of the meaning of other people’s nonverbal cues.

    For example: Your mother uses a sharp tone of voice when she gives you instructions about the chores she would like you to do while she is at work. You say, “From the sound of your voice, I get the impression I have done something to annoy you. Have I?”

    The question is the perception check. She may well be annoyed with you, in which case the perception check may lead to a discussion and resolution of the problem. On the other hand, she may be concerned about an entirely different matter and inadvertently created your perception of the situation. In this case, the perception check may avoid misunderstandings and future problems.
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