Perceptual Confirmation

What Is Perceptual Confirmation?

One factor that leads us to create precisely the reality we expect is our tendency to see things in line with our initial expectations. Once we have a particular expectation, we interpret ambiguous events in line with our beliefs, a phenomenon known as perceptual confirmation.

Perceptual confirmation is the tendency for people to see things in line with their own beliefs and preconceptions, or expectations.

For example, if you expect to work on a project with a person in a stigmatized group (e.g., one who is suffering from schizophrenia), you are likely to see him or her in a more positive way than you would if you didn’t expect to work with that person. Why? Because if you believe you’ll have to continue to interact with this person, you are very motivated to believe this person will be a good partner! This is just one example of our tendency to see what we want to see.

In a unique demonstration of the power of our beliefs to influence how we perceive the world, David Rosenhan of Stanford University and several people without mental illness (e.g., a graduate student, a painter, a housewife, and a pediatrician) went to the admissions departments of local mental hospitals (Rosenhan, 1973).

They all claimed that they were hearing voices, and they were all admitted to the hospitals with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. However, once they were in the hospital as patients, they acted in a completely normal manner. How did the professional staff treat them? They continued to see them as “sick” and even interpreted their normal behavior as symptoms of schizophrenia. For example, one “patient” kept a journal of his experiences in the hospital; this was described as “obsessive writing behavior” in his chart. Patients gathering outside the cafeteria before it opened (in a place where there was little to do) were said to be exhibiting “oral-acquisitive syndrome.” In sum, once staff members believed that a given person was a patient, they interpreted the person’s behavior according to their beliefs.

The phenomenon of perceptual confirmation helps explain why people can watch the same event but see it in very different ways. If you watch a presidential debate or a national football championship with someone who is rooting for a different person or team than you are, the bias in perception held by both of you will be evident.

People see their preferred candidate as making more intelligent points and see their favored athletic team as showing greater ability and morality. In fact, people feel even more supportive of their favored presidential candidate after watching a debate.

This suggests that such debates may do less to help candidates attract new supporters than to help their current supporters feel more positive toward them (and hence more likely to donate money and/or vote). The power of perceptual confirmation also helps explain a powerful effect in health psychology—the placebo effect.