Social Perception

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Outline

I. Introduction

II. The Nature of Cues

III. The Validity of the Social Construction

IV. Processes and Moderators

V. Putting it all Together

I. Introduction

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.

Nevertheless, 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.

II. The Nature of Cues

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, group membership (the person is a librarian), or others. In all cases, however, 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). Such associations may have been established in different ways.

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 (“I know one other person who comes from Portugal, and this person is very shy”). 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 (e.g., stereotypes: librarians tend to be shy).

III. The Validity of the Social Construction

Obviously, errors may occur at different steps in the construction process, and 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. Perceivers may miss some important cues and focus on the wrong ones. Moreover, some distal stimuli have clearer cues than others. For example, there are many easily observable diagnostic cues of intelligence (e.g., performance on intellectually difficult tasks), but it is harder to judge trustworthiness. The latter example also illustrates the further problem that people, the object of social judgments, may try to influence the judgment and deceive the perceiver (appearing more trustworthy than they are). Finally, cues may vary in their validity. For example, “hitting another person” is probably more strongly related to aggressiveness than being a Libra is. Still, even cues with generally high validity may not hold for a particular person or a particular instance. Hitting another person in self-defense is different from hitting someone who jumps the queue.

In this latter regard, 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 was a stable concept, which could 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), Kelley (1967), 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. If a person behaves aggressively in one situation, one may conclude neither dispositional or situational causes. But if the person behaves aggressively in many different situations, it becomes more justifiable to assume dispositional aggressiveness. If other people behave aggressively in the same situation, it is assumed that the situation brings out aggressiveness in people. Some situations allow a large variance of behavior, where different people can act differently and therefore show their individual differences, while other situations force people to act in one specific way. When someone pulls her hand away when touching a hot plate, one does not infer that this person is special because she does not like her hand being burned, or that she pulled her hand away because of her personality. In fact, in this situation, one would expect everybody to act in the same manner, and therefore the behavior is not very illuminating regarding the person’s dispositions but merely reflects the situation.

IV. Processes and Moderators

What the social perceiver should do is assess the situation to determine whether it allows a broad range of behaviors. Only if the situation allows different responses should one infer personality traits from the observed behavior. 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. This dispositional attribution does not require much mental effort and may occur automatically. It is only as a second step that perceivers may consider the situational influence, and this may result in a correction of the initial automatic impression. Most of the time this second step, however, does not happen. Considering the power of a situation and thinking about its influence on other people is laborious and does not work as automatically as the inference of personality traits (see Gilbert 1989). To engage in this effortful processing one needs cognitive resources, which may be constrained when one is tired or distracted. Besides, people are often quite satisfied with attributing actions to dispositions, since this makes their social world simpler and more predictable. Only when an accurate judgment is very important would people be motivated to spend more effort on the processing of information and on making correct attributions.

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. People often do not know how the person acts at other times, or may not have observed many other people in exactly the same situation. What they can do, however, is to imagine themselves in that situation and consider how they would behave. This method is of course far from being perfect, since it is difficult to correctly construe the situation the way it is subjectively experienced by the other person. Thus, the impact of the situation is often underestimated.

V. Putting it all Together

Inferences do not occur piece by piece or independently. Rather, the different pieces of information mutually influence each other’s interpretation. Expectations and activated stereotypes may influence which cues a perceiver focuses on and how they are interpreted. For example, a shove might be interpreted as hostile behavior when performed by an African-American and as playing around or dramatizing when performed by a Caucasian. Even the mere sequence in which the information is acquired influences the impression people eventually form. Apparently the first information colors the interpretation of subsequent information.

From this one may conclude that social perception is hard work. Cues have to be identified and interpreted, the importance of the perceived cues has to be weighed, new information has to be inferred from activated schemas, and all the gathered information has to be integrated into one single, coherent impression. All that must happen in a very short time. Despite this apparent complexity, perceiving somebody’s shyness does feel like perceiving the color of a car. People think they see that somebody is shy and often do not consciously monitor their inference processes. Indeed, people can extract an almost incredible amount of information from very short episodes (thin slices) of behavior (see Ambady et al. 2000 for a review), and the construction process may even happen without people being aware of it. Often people do not even know which cues influence their impressions. For example, smiling faces are judged as happier when their eye muscles contract, but judges seem to be unable to report why they judge these faces as happier than those with mere lip-smiles.

At the beginning of this research paper, social perception was compared to the perception of inanimate objects, but clearly people differ from inanimate objects. 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. Usually, they will present themselves in a favorable way, and perceivers have to sort out diagnostic from less diagnostic cues. Whether on purpose or inadvertently, people also may behave differently when they know they are being observed. Second, people may change and perceivers may need to update their impressions accordingly. A person who seemed shy at the beginning of a conversation may appear more extraverted after a while. And third, as outlined in this research paper, although social perception may feel as easy as perceiving inanimate objects, there is much more construction going on in the case of social perception. It is not passive observation; the larger part of what we call 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.

Bibliography:

  1. Ambady, N., Bernieri, F. J., & Richeson, J. A. (2000). Toward a histology of social behavior: Judgmental accuracy from thin slices of the behavioral stream. In M. P. Zanna (ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology: vol. 32. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, pp. 201–271.
  2. Bless, H., Fiedler, K., & Strack, F. (2004). Social cognition: How individuals construct reality. Hove: Psychology Press.
  3. Brunswick, E. (1947). Systematic and representative design of psychological experiments: With results in physical and social perception. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  4. Gilbert, D. T. (1989). Thinking lightly about others: Automatic components of the social inference process. In J. S. Uleman & J. A. Bargh (eds.), Unintended thought. New York: Guilford, pp. 189– 211.
  5. 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.
  6. Heider, F. (1958). The psychology of interpersonal relations. New York: John Wiley.
  7. Kelley, H. H. (1967). Attribution theory in social psychology. In D. Levine (ed.), Nebraska Symposium on Motivation. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, vol. 15, pp. 129–238.

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