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Perception refers to the process of categorizing and interpreting information that is attended to. Selective perception refers to the process of categorizing and interpreting information in a way that favors one category or interpretation over another. Thus, selective perception is generally considered to represent a bias in information processing. More specifically, information tends to be selectively perceived in ways that are congruent with existing individual needs, goals, values, attitudes, and beliefs. This process generally occurs automatically, outside the conscious awareness of the perceiver. The process of selective perception can occur at various stages of perception, including the initial recognition and categorization of stimuli, attention to competing stimuli, and the interpretation of these stimuli.
Selective retention (also known as selective memory) is a similar process by which some information is retained and stored in memory (and is thus available for retrieving) and other information is not (and is thus forgotten). Like selective perception, selective retention is biased in terms of what information gets retained, with information that is more congruent with existing belief structures more likely to be retained in memory (and thus more likely to be recalled at a later time) than information that is less congruent with existing belief structures.
The processes of selective perception and retention can best be explained by the concept of construct accessibility. Construct accessibility refers to the extent to which any particular concept can be recalled from memory. Constructs can be very specific (for example, attitudes) or very general (for example, schemas). When information is processed in the course of everyday experiences, the information is integrated into existing concepts stored in memory. Those concepts that are at the ‘top of mind,’ are the most likely to be retrieved in everyday experiences, and thus are most likely to be used in interpreting everyday experiences. This bias toward the most accessible constructs in memory for interpreting situations defines the concept of selective perception. Similarly, when interpreting new situations in terms of existing constructs in memory, the information that fits within that accessible construct is integrated into existing memory structures. However, the information that may not fit with that accessible construct (e.g., disconfirming information), is not well integrated into existing memory structures, and thus is not as easily recalled. This exemplifies the notion of selective perception.
There are several class studies in selective perception and retention. Hastorf and Cantril (1954) investigated the perceptions of student spectators at a football game between Princeton and Dartmouth that produced many injuries. The researchers interviewed spectators a week after the game and found that Princeton students thought the Dartmouth team committed many more infractions than did the Dartmouth students, and vice versa. Vallone et al. (1985) conducted a study in which pro-Arab, pro-Israel, and neutral students were shown a videotape of television news coverage of the Beirut massacre in which civilian refugees in Lebanon were killed. The results showed that prior attitudes influenced both the interpretation of and memory for the events, and both pro-Arab and pro- Israeli groups perceived that the coverage was biased against them, with neutral viewers falling in the middle. This effect of differing perceptions of biased media coverage against one’s own group has been termed the ‘hostile media effect.’ The results of such studies can be interpreted in terms of both selective perception and selective retention. Across the studies the results provide strong evidence that individuals’ perceptions are biased toward pre-existing attitudes and beliefs.
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- Hastorf, A. H. & Cantril, H. (1954). They saw a game: A case study. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 49, 129–134.
- Vallone, R. P., Ross, L., & Lepper, M. R. (1985). The hostile media phenomenon: Biased perception and perceptions of media bias coverage of the Beirut massacre. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49, 577–585.
- Vidmar, N. & Rokeach, M. (1974). Archie Bunker’s bigotry: A study in selective perception and exposure. Journal of Communication, 24, 36–47.
- Zanna, M. P., Klosson, E. C., & Darley, J. M. (1976). How television news viewers deal with facts that contradict their beliefs: A consistency and attribution analysis. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 6, 159–176.