Perceptual Barriers

Understanding Perceptual Barriers to Accurate Perception

Perceptual barriers are factors that can pose interference with our developing accurate perception. Perceptual barriers make individuals to behave unreflectively—that is, to act only on the basis of their personal interests, or make erroneous assumptions, and so and so forth.

The best way to eliminate barriers in our mode of perception is to first recognize them. The following are the common barriers that hinder accurate perception:

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1.   Self-serving Bias

Sometimes in our attempts to offer reasons that we exhibit certain behaviours, we overemphasize external factors and downplay the internal ones—factors that has to do with us. This pattern of perception is known as Self-serving bias.

Most times we take credit for positive outcomes and deny culpability for the negative ones. Thus, we are quick to attribute negative outcomes to factors beyond our control. Although, self-serving bias could help to raise our own self-esteem during the process of self-attribution, it often hinders the possibility of accurate perception.

2.   Overattribution

Overattribution is a perceptual barrier which consists when we attribute everything a person does to a single or a few specific characteristics. For example, we may ascribe a person’s alcohol use, preference for certain kinds of friends, and lack of interest in close relationships to the fact that she or he was sexually abused when young.

3.   Perceptual Sets and Selectivities

Perceptual sets and selectivities are organizational constructions that condition a readiness to perceive, or a tendency to interpret stimuli in ways to which one has been conditioned. They are gradually formed over time and help us decide which stimuli we should attend to.

For example, if we are raised in a family that values education so highly, we are likely to perceive learning-related activities more positively than we would if we were raised in a family that dismisses education as unimportant.

4.   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.

5.   Halo effect

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.

6.   Ethnocentrism

Ethnocentrism is the tendency to perceive what is right or wrong, good or bad, according to the categories and values of one’s own culture.

When we are ethnocentric, we mentally formulate categorizations that make up the percentage that are familiar and comfortable to our “in group” and apply categorizations that are unfamiliar and awkward to an “out-group.” While such a process can help us make sense of our world, it can also cause us to narrow our perceptions, resulting in perceptual barrier.

7.   Stereotype

Stereotype is the rigid perception that is applied to every member of a group or to an individual over a period of time, regardless of individual variations. When we stereotype instead of responding to the communication or cues of individuals, we create expectations, assume they are valid, and behave as if they have already occurred. We judge people on the basis of what we believe regarding the group in which we placed them.

There are a number of other barriers in addition to those mentioned above that can pose interference with our developing accurate perception. They include the following:

  • The failure to recognize the influence of age
  • The failure to distinguish facts from inferences
  • The tendency to think we know it all
  • The penchant for indiscrimination
  • The tendency to freeze our evaluations
  • The tendency to respond to events or persons with snap judgments
  • The wearing of blinders
  • The tendency to judge others more harshly than we judge ourselves

We discuss each under the following headings:

Age and Person Perception

Most times when people exchange information about important life events—getting married, having a child, getting promoted, buying a house, etc—they usually talk or ask about the age of the persons involved.

When we are younger, category-based processing—the processing of information about a person that is influenced by attitudes toward the group into which the person is placed—may affect our attitudes toward someone we identify as belonging to the category of older adults, for example.

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In contrast, if we are older and view the target person as similar to ourselves, rather than rely on stereotypic category-based processing, we may rely on person-based processing—the processing of information about a person based on perceptions of the individual, not on his or her membership in a particular group. This so because our age at any point in time is a core factor that influences how we categorize and perceive others (Brewer, 1988).

Fact-Inference Confusions

Fact-inference confusion is the tendency to treat observations and assumptions similarly. When we mistake what we infer for something we have observed, we experience fact-inference confusion. A fact is something we know is true on the basis of observation. For example, your hair colour is brown.

An inference is simply a conclusion we draw, whether or not it is supported by facts. If you assume your neighbour is having an affair based solely on the fact that an unfamiliar car comes to her house every few days for an hour or so, you are making an inference.

Inferences have varying degrees of probability of being correct; their validity depends on the facts that underlie them. For instance, “The sun will rise tomorrow” is not technically a statement of fact; it is an inference with a very high probability of being correct. In contrast, if you see a friend talking and laughing with another person and you conclude that the two of them are hooking up, that would be an inference with average to low probability of being correct, because you cannot verify it based on your observations to this point.

Inferences, like assumptions, can have adverse effects on our relationships. They can cause us to jump to erroneous conclusions, create embarrassing scenes, and result in our responding inappropriately to others. Thus, we need to make deliberate effort to evaluate whether we are relying on facts or on inferences when we perceive and interpret other person’s behaviour.

The question is not whether we make inferences but whether we are aware of the inferences we make. If we are aware that we are inferring and not observing, and we can accurately assess the degree of probability that our inferences are correct, we take a giant stride towards improving our perceptions.

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Allness (Know It All)

Allness is a perceptual fallacy that allows a person to believe that he or she knows everything about something. Thinking that we can know all there is to know about a person, place, or situation, is an attitude that we should not allow in our relationships, but unfortunately some people carry with them this attitude into interpersonal relationships.

Those who believe there is such thing as “know it all” mistakenly think they can know everything. They exhibit very little tolerance for ambiguity, which causes them to display an unwillingness to withhold judgment. People who think they know it all often undermines their ability to perceive accurately.

Insisting that your viewpoint alone is correct, shows you are saying that any differing perceptions are incorrect. We would be wiser to open ourselves to alternative ways of perceiving. To correct a tendency toward allness, we could add an implied “et cetera” to each of our perceptions—acknowledging that there is more to be known than what we see.


Indiscrimination is a perceptual barrier that causes a person to emphasize similarities and neglect differences. When we fail to discriminate among individuals, we may end up discriminating against an individual. In other words, the more we are discriminating and look for differences in all individuals, the less likely it is that we will be prejudiced against the members of any one group or treat people belonging to these groups unfairly.

Accurate perception depends on our being able to identify differences, not just recognize similarities. Too frequently, however, just the opposite happens, increasing our tendency to stereotype.

If you become aware that people are individuals and are unique in any given settings—that no two people in any circumstance can be alike or act alike, your tendency to perceive people as unique individuals will improve.

Engaging social exchanges under the basis of stereotypes often leads to miscommunication. Too frequently, the way stereotypes play out in behaviour leads us to decide that we do not like or approve of someone before we have even gotten to know him or her. Again, our expectations influence our judgments.

Frozen Evaluations and Snap Judgments

Frozen evaluation is a perceptual fallacy that discourages flexibility and encourages rigidity; an evaluation of a person that ignores changes. When we assume that situations and people stay the way they are, always, we make frozen evaluations.

“Once a cheater,” we think, “always a cheater,” “Once a thief,” we reason, “always a thief.” Such statements fail to acknowledge that people can change. If our perception does not permit us to be flexible, but freezes our judgment instead, then we fail in perceiving the constant change that characterizes all of us.

To avoid making such fallacious perceptions, we should evaluate every perception we acknowledge. Doing so will also help prevent us from clinging to our first impressions. Initial perceptions need not be permanent. In fact, maintaining an open mind should be a goal if we are to develop more valid assessments of experience.

Snap Judgment is an evaluation made without reflection; an undelayed reaction. Same way we are prone to make frozen evaluations, we similarly display snap judgments, or make instant decisions.

In the rush to give meaning to our perceptions, instead of delaying our responses we jump to conclusions, displaying instantaneous and reflexlike—but often incorrect or even dangerous—responses. For example, if we see a friend talking with a police officer, we may rush to judge and conclude that the officer was giving him a ticket.

Accurate perception usually takes time. Better perceivers do not rush to respond; rather, they try to synthesize as many data as possible, explore alternative evaluations of the situation, and thus increase their chances of understanding what is really going on.


Blindering is the unconscious adding of restrictions that do not actually exist. This consists when we force ourselves to see people and situations only in certain ways, as though we are wearing blinders. What we tell ourselves about what we perceive can also limit our ability to perceive accurately. Thus, blindering, in effect, prevents us from seeing who or what is really before our eyes.

Accurate perception depends on the ability to see what is there without being limited by imaginary restrictions or boundaries. When, for example, scientists stopped searching for the cause of malaria in the air (the word malaria comes from the Italian for “bad air”) and looked for other causes, they soon traced the origin of the disease to the Anopheles mosquito and were then able to find a cure.

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Judging Others More Harshly Than Ourselves

Kindly point your finger at a person near you. I bet that doesn’t feel strange, does it? Obviously no! That’s because it feels natural to point your finger at a person near you. Now try pointing that same finger at yourself. That doesn’t feel quite so natural, does it?

When perceptual disagreements arise, we tend to assume that the problem in perceiving lies with the other person, rather than with ourselves. We are quite comfortable evaluating our perceptual capabilities more charitably than we judge those of others.

When asked to compare their ability to communicate with that of their peers, parents, professors, significant others, or siblings, most people report communicating at least as well as if not better than others. Thus, whenever communication goes awry, that finger points outward—directly at another person—rather than inward to the self. We shift responsibility for communication problems and perceptual distortions away from ourselves and place it with others with whom we have relationships.