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The term ‘social perception’ might seem a misnomer, as it refers less to how people perceive their social environment through their senses than to how they make a judgment. Unlike the color of a car or the loudness of a piece of music, both of which can be more or less directly perceived by the respective sensory systems, the trustworthiness of a person or the aggressiveness of a social exchange can only be inferred or construed from various indirect cues. People have to go beyond the information given in order to arrive at a social judgment. In this sense, social perception is an active and constructive process of the perceiver. Not surprisingly, then, the same social situation or the same person may be ‘perceived’ quite differently by different perceivers, or by the same perceiver in different situational contexts.
A theoretical framework that was originally suggested for visual perception, Brunswick’s ‘lens model’ (1947), provides a quite suitable approach to social perception. This model suggests that objects have certain ‘real’ properties (distal stimuli; e.g., shyness), which translate into certain cues (proximal stimuli; e.g., little eye contact). Only the cues, not the ‘real’ thing, can be directly perceived by an observer. Cues are retranslated and inferences from different cues are then put together to form a picture. Proximal cues can differ dramatically in their abstractness and in the information they imply. A cue might be simple and concrete, such as a behavior (e.g., avoiding eye contact) or the physical appearance of a person. Cues also may be abstract, such as biographical data or group membership. The cue as such is meaningless. It is only meaningful to a particular perceiver, who has stored an association of the cue with the concept to be judged (e.g., shyness).
One source of cue significance is that people have learned over time and over many observations that the proximal stimulus co-varies with a particular distal stimulus (eye contact and shyness). Other associations may have originated from single observations. Whether on the basis of multiple or single observations, people form individual and subjective lay theories about the associations of particular behaviors, appearance, biographical data, etc. with personality traits. Yet, other associations may not be based on individual theories about the significance of cues but on shared cultural knowledge.
The lens model offers a nice framework for understanding where errors may happen. First, perceivers – or, better, judges – can never fully observe all possible cues but only a subset. Moreover, some distal stimuli have clearer cues than others. Heider (1958) proposed that what people need to do in order to find out what a person is like (e.g., whether aggressive or not) is to correct for the situational influence in the observed behavior. For Heider a person’s trait is a stable concept, which can be extracted despite steadily changing observations in different situations. Although there is no act without both an actor and a situation, one can at least attempt to disentangle the two factors and determine which influence is a stronger cause, by using the ‘principle of covariance’: in order to be attributed as a cause of an effect, the factor should be present when the effect occurs but be absent when the effect does not occur. By this logic Heider (1958) and other authors proposed one can identify dispositions by comparing the behavior of a person over many situations and also comparing the behavior of other persons in such situations.
What the social perceiver should do is assess the situation to determine whether it allows a broad range of behaviors. However, what the social perceiver really does instead is often something very different. Initially, people automatically infer personality traits from observed behavior. This tendency to think that people are the way they act and to explain behavior with underlying personality traits is often called the ‘correspondence bias’ or ‘fundamental attribution error.’ Even in those cases where people are motivated to find out about the real causes of a behavior, they may not succeed. The problem for social situations is that it is not always possible to compare different people and different situations.
Several factors make social perception a more complex and difficult task than simply perceiving the color of a car or the size of a building (see Bless et al. 2004). First, people may try to influence the impression others have of them. Second, people may change and perceivers may need to update their impressions accordingly. And third, social perception is being constructed in our brains. Even if we do not always realize it, the construction site of social reality is a very busy place.
- Bless, H., Fiedler, K., & Strack, F. (2004). Social cognition: How individuals construct reality. Hove: Psychology Press.
- Brunswick, E. (1947). Systematic and representative design of psychological experiments: With results in physical and social perception. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Gilbert, D. T. (1998). Ordinary personology. In D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, & G. Lindzey (eds.), Handbook of social psychology, 4th edn. New York: McGraw-Hill, vol. 2, pp. 89–150.
- Heider, F. (1958). The psychology of interpersonal relations. New York: John Wiley.