When it comes to communication, the problem of perception takes the central stage. Varner and Beamer (2010, p. 35) defines communication as “the perception of verbal and nonverbal behaviour and the assignment of meaning to them.” They considered perception so important that as long as the perception process takes place, communication occurs. Covey (1992) also emphasised the significance of perception by attributing perception problems as one of the root causes of communication problems. Differences in perceiving the world would inevitably lead to communication barriers because people communicate on the basis of their own perceptions and perception determines how people behave toward the world (Singer, 1998). Therefore, great stress has been put on the role of perception in interpersonal communication that Singer (p. 10) even proposed in communication “reality ··· is less important than one’s perception of reality”. To discuss the crucial role of perception in communication, this essay first examines the relationship between reality and perception of reality, followed by a discussion on how perception affects communication in the stages involved. Finally, the role of three types of factors in perception – physical, environmental and learned factors, will be examined.
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Reality vs. perception of reality
Effective communication is hindered when communicators have different understandings of reality. Cognitive theorists are convinced that reality is more about the things in here – in the mind, ratherthan the actual things out there (Singer, 1998). Perception, an active process by which people become aware of the world, is the window through which we experience the world .To illustrate the relationship between the two, Singer makes an analogy between the human perception process and a class assignment, both comparing and contrasting what enters and exits the mind (p. 187). Since it is impossible for a person to either experience everything in the world or have exactly the same life story as another person, no one will have absolutely right perception about the world or exactly the same perception as others’. The fact that family members of twins can often easily tell one from the other explains that even twins do not have identical experiences and perceptions.
The formation of divergent perceptions
As Roger asserts, nothing, neither the Bible nor Freud, is more reliable than personal experience in the perception process (as cited in Griffin, 2006, p.32) . This supports Stacks, Hickson and Hill’s (1991, p. 4) suggestion that “Communication brings us together and perceptions tend to separate us.” Clearly, the impact of divergent perceptions in interpersonal communication has gain great attention of communicators. To reduce the difficulties in communication, it is necessary to understand how the divergent perceptions are formed in the first place.
Perception is a series of procedures that blend into one another. To conveniently discuss the these procedures, perception is generally divided into three stages: selection/stimulation, organization, and interpretation/ evaluation (Lane, 2010; Kelly, 2006; Dwyer, 2009).
The first stage is selection, in which the world comes to us through our sensory receptors. Naturally you cannot perceive everything; rather you engage in selective perception, where you pick up some stimulation over others. Two types of stimuli are considered more likely to draw our attention: meaningful ones and noticeable ones (Devito, 2009). Things meaningful or noticeable to one person do not often mean the same to another person. Therefore, during this stage, people of different backgrounds often receive different messages from the same world. For example, when a couple attend a concert, the husband, a musician, tends to focus on the musical part while the wife, a fashion designer, pays more attention on the costume and stage design. Suppose the design of the concert is excellent but the singer is off key from time to time. It is very likely that the couple end up having different comments on the concert. In this way, differences occur in the very first stage of perception process.
In the next stage – organization stage, the stimuli that come into our brain will have to pass through “the filters of our censor screens” where they are rearranged and decoded in some ways we are used to or we learn to (Singer, 1998. p. 11) These ways of organizing data become the shortcuts that enable us to make connections between new information and previously gained knowledge, and thus simplify our understanding and remembering of new people and events. However, these shortcuts can be misleading if you rely on them too much. You may either add additional data which are consistent with your way of organizing or ignore those which is inconsistent, in order to make the new experience organisable. As the constructivists identifies, we often “fit over realities to bring order to our perceptions” (Griffin, 2006, p. 191). As a result, perceptual variations occur because we gain our perception not in the way it should be, but in a way every individual needs it to be.
Having discussed the first two stages, we will now have a look at the third stage – interpretation/evaluation, in which we make sense out of the organised stimuli and find out the value of them. As Kelly (2006) suggests, we never have all the facts, and our interpretation and evaluation are largely dependent on the past knowledge and our own value systems. When personal experience and values are involved, differences are bound to occur. In other words, we get used to seeing some stimuli in a certain way that we don’t take others into account (Lane, 2010, p.41). A good example of this would be stereotyping. When people stereotype others, they put people into categories and assert all people in the category share the same characteristics. The consequence is that barriers in communication often occur on the basis of false perceptions of others because great deal of individual differences are not taken into consideration (Lustig, 2010). The results of two studies of stereotypical perception of African Americans show that African Americans are estimated to earn less than they actually do, are seen as poor and intimidating (Dixon, 2008) and are more likely to commit crimes (Ford, 1997). Many of stereotypes are created by direct experience with only a few members of a certain group. Others may even come from second-hand materials such as mass media without any direct experience. Yet many of us still use stereotypes to make assumptions and interpretations. This is very likely to cause communication gaps between people who perceive and expect others in their own understandings.
Interrelationship of the stages
Above is an analysis of how perceptual differences come into being in each of the stages. However, it is helpful to clarify, though listed in such a way, the three stages do not occur one by one. Rather, these stages often take place almost simultaneously (Lane, 2010, p. 36) and there is no way one can draw a dividing line between any of them. In addition, we should not see any stage as the start or the finish of a perception process (Russel, cited in Kelly, 2006, p. 36). It is common for people to think of these stages as a linear sequence, from gathering data to organizing the data and finally attaching some meanings to them. However, this process does not end at the interpretation stage because the result of interpretation/evaluation would affect your future sensing/selecting behaviour. In this case, some other ways of breaking down perception process would help make the point clearer. Initial three stages remaining the same, DeVito (2009, p. 64) believed two other steps take place afterwards: memory and recall. These two steps can lead to people’s perceptual inaccuracy in a way that people may lose or unable to recall some information. Even worse is retrieving the wrong message. Griffin (2006, p. 189) add a utilizing stage to emphasise the effect of memorized and recalled data on future communication behaviour. His suggestion of comparing the stages to the five interconnected Polemic Rings is extremely helpful in explaining the relationships of these stages of perception process (p. 187).
Seeing the fact that the stages are actually interrelated and never come to an end, we can better know how we make mistakes when we think we see every aspect of an issue and make a right judgement. The truth is that previous interpretation has already had an effect on the selecting process, and we only pick up those data we want to, which further influence our organizing and evaluating process. For example: A person who experienced a destructive earthquake may notice a noise from the ground seconds before the shaking (Sensing stage). He then established a connection between the two: “A noise often comes before a big earthquake” and considered it a way to make predictions of future earthquakes (Organizing and interpreting). This interpretation inserts an influence on his future processing of information in the way that he may become very sensitive to similar sounds and more likely to link some other unusual phenomenon to an earthquake.
From above we can see that differences take place in almost every step we take when perceiving the world. Just like what Ribbins and colleagues words said, the factors which “shape and sometimes distort perception can reside in the perceiver, in the object or target being perceived or in the context of the situation in which the perception occurs” (as cited in Dwyer, 2009, p. 14). These stages are like a giant filter, every information in the external world have to pass through the filter which is made of your own experience, beliefs and value systems (Bjorseth, n.d.). Again, similar to the analogy of class assignment described in the beginning of this essay, what exits your mind differentiate from what comes to your mind because your uniquely designed filter has performed its job.
Nature of factors that affect perception
Having identified how the factors impact on the perception process in each stage, the essay now focuses on the nature of the factors that affect perceptions. Singer (1998) has suggested three categories of them: physical determinants, environmental determinants and learned determinants. Physical determinant are commonly understood as our five sensory receptors recognized by Aristotle. Interestingly, Singer’s later research has revealed at least thirty-seven differentiate sensory inputs and even more are expected to be discovered (Singer, 1998, p.14). Apart from these, other physical differences such as body shape, skin colour, hand size that make us unique in the world can contribute to differences in perception. Just like every the uniqueness of individual’s physical characteristics, everything happens in a unique context. The unique surroundings of an event can be very powerful in forming different perceptions. For example, the result of judging whether a person is young or old will probably be influenced by which age group he is compared with.
The third type of determinants, learned determinants, is seen as the most important. How people acquire their perceptual constructs has been thoroughly studied. The result of an experiment on people who are born blind but later restored with their sight shows that without the visual experiences, these people cannot tell a figure or discriminate simple shapes until several months’ visual learning (“Perception – Innate and learned”, n.d.). This reveals that learning experience is necessary and powerful in shaping and changing people’s perception. Similarly, in Varner and Beamer’s (2010) perception model of choices, they explain that when you encounter something unfamiliar, you either choose not to attend to it or lose memory of it until you learn how to change your mental category to accommodate it. Singer (1998, p. 19-27) also devised an exercise to test how perceptions of the same stimuli differ in different cultures. The exercise finds out that perception is greatly influenced by culture, a combination of learned activities. The more specific the symbol is, the more the interpretations are alike. The more abstract the symbol is, the more various meanings are attached to it. With such findings, it is not difficult to understand that communicators from different cultures would undoubtedly meet difficulties with the different views they hold on the same thing.
From the discussions above, we have seen that misperceptions can arise when we collect information, organise it in different ways, and assign different meanings to it. In addition, differences of perceptions are determined by various factors, especially learned ones. Communications based on divergent perceptions will inevitably meet difficulties. To make communication of higher level of effectiveness, it is a good start for communicators to bear in mind the powerful influence of different perceptions on communication process, to learn the culture of other groups and to make your perceptions closer to each other.
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