talk blockThe role of your Perception in your Interpersonal communication

One of the important milestones in our personal growth is the discovery that our view of people and things outside are very much colored by what goes on in our minds. It would be naïve to take our views of others as objective facts. Healthy relationships require that we become aware of our perception and its possible subjective colouring in our judgements of people and situations. For example, I may tend to evaluate an action of a person I dislike as negative, even though that person had done it with positive interest in my good. This article attempts to shed some light on our perceptual processes that play a big role in our communication with others.

Perception is the process by which we become aware of objects, events, and people and their behaviors through our senses. Our perceptions are connected only partly to the outside world. But to a large extent they are the function of our own experiences, our desires, needs, wants, likes and dislikes.

1. Stages of perceptual process

Let us look at the different stages of the process of perception.

   1. Sensory stimulation:

At first sense organs are stimulated. You hear a sound, you smell fry fish, you feel a sweaty palm as you shake hands. We indulge in selective perception rather than receive all stimuli. e.g. while day dreaming in the class you hear the teacher calling out your name. We also perceive stimuli that is greater in intensity and have novelty. e.g. creative TV ads. We perceive only a very small portion of the stimuli that bombard our senses at a time.

   2. Sensory stimulation is organized

The sensory stimulations are organized by the principles such as the principle of proximity and resemblance.

According to the principle of proximity you perceive as a group persons or objects that are physically close together. You see them as having something in common. You perceive family members or members of an organization as similar in attitudes, values and beliefs.

By the principle of resemblance, you group people who are similar in appearance and distinguish them from those who are dissimilar. e.g. you perceive the members of the same race or people with similar dress as having similar attitudes and behaviors.

Beware: the principle of proximity and resemblance need not give accurate information. They may serve as hypothesis or possibilities that need to be verified and not acted upon as true. For example, not all Claretians are honest or saintly, though they are all consecrated persons.

   3. Sensory stimulation is interpreted-evaluated

The interpretation of stimuli is inevitably subjective. These interpretations are greatly influenced by your experiences, needs, wants, values, beliefs, your physical or emotional condition, expectations etc. The same stimuli can lead to different interpretations from person to person, or from one time to another for the same person.

2. Attribution of the cause of behaviors

 Another important factor in our perception is the responsibility we attribute to others for their actions. If we consider that an unpleasant action is motivated by internal factors controllable to that person, our perception of that action would be very negative. If it is due to factors external to the person and less controllable, we would be more lenient in judging them negatively.

Consider the following:

1. A nurse gave a wrong injection and the person died.

3. A father elopes with a woman abandoning his wife and children.

Why do they behave the way they do?? Is it something within the person or within the situation that caused it? Your answers can be explained by attribution theory.

Attribution theory explains the process you go though in trying to understand your own and or other’s behaviors, particularly the reasons or motivations of these behaviors. Attribution helps you to make sense of what you perceive. It helps you to give order and logic to the perceived stimuli and better understand the possible causes of behaviors you observe. Attribution also helps to make predictions about what will happen, and what others are likely to do.

Internal and external Judgments

To assess the behaviour of someone, the first step is to determine if the individual or some outside factor is responsible for the action. We determine if the cause is internal (some personality trait) or external (some situational factor). Your assessment of someone’s behaviour as internally or externally motivated greatly influence your evaluation of them and, eventually, to like them.

For example, when a student fails in an exam, you will have an unfavourable attitude to him if you determine that he is responsible for the failure (being lazy). But if you determine the cause as racial discrimination of the professor, you may rather develop a sympathetic attitude to him.

Another factor of attribution is your relationship with the persons concerned. In the example of the nurse giving wrong injection causing the death of a patient, if the patient is your sister, you are likely to attribute internal reasons (carelessness, irresponsibility etc.) and judge the nurse very negatively. If the nurse happen to be your sister, you are prone to attribute external reasons (over work, mistaken label) and judge the nurse less harshly.

There are three principles in attributing external or internal motivations to behaviors:


By this principle we ask if other people behave the same way as the person in focus. In other words if the person acts in accordance with consensus. If no, we may attribute the behaviour to internal cause.

Low consensus— attribution to internal causes

High consensus—attribution more to external cause

For example, most students failed in the exam or most people say that the professor is a racist.


Applying the principle of consistency, we ask if the persons repeatedly behave the same way in similar situations. If yes, there is higher consistency and we may attribute the behaviour to internal motivation. If low consistency is observed, external motivation is attributed.

For example, when the student has failed in several subjects, we may attribute his failure to an internal cause; “He failed because he is not intelligent”.


The principle of distinctiveness looks for if the persons react in similar ways in different situations. If yes, there is low distinctiveness and we may attribute the behaviour to internal cause. For example, the student has failed only in one subject, we may attribute his failure to external causes.

Low consensus high consistency, low distinctiveness – attribution to internal cause.

High consensus, low consistency high distinctiveness – attribution to external cause.

For example, a student complains about marks in Philosophy. On what basis do you conclude whether this behavior is externally or internally caused?

                     Internal if…

               External if… one else complained (low consensus)

2.student has complained before in this course (high consistency)

3.student has complained to other teachers in other courses (low distinctiveness)

  1. Many others have complained (H. Consensus)
  2. Student has never complained in this course before (low consist.)
  3. Student has never complained to other teachers (High distict.)

According to internal or external causes of behaviors we attribute responsibility of a behavior to that person.

Controllability and stability Judgments

Other factors that affect Attribution are judgments regarding controllability and stability. For example, two friends turned up late for a meeting and offered the following excuses:

Tom: “I saw a an offer of a sale on the way and got caught up in shopping and forgot the time”.

Jack: “I was stuck in the traffic for two hours. There was a big accident on the way”.

We may resent the first and accept the second excuse. The first excuse was controllable and you would hold your friend responsible while the second was beyond the control of the person.

If you consider that a behaviour is due to factors that would not change over time, you may not try to improve yourself or the situation. If you judge your behaviour as a result of unstable factors, you may try to improve yourself.

If you have done poorly in public speaking, you may take any of the following self evaluation

  1. You don’t have the ability for public speaking. It is not worth wasting time improving something you are not good at.
  2. Naturally the first attempt would not be excellent. Public speaking is an art which you need to improve by practice. With time and practice, you will surely become an excellent speaker.

Beware: Be attentive to self serving bias in us. We usually take credit for the positive and deny responsibility for the negative. You are apt to attribute your negative behaviors to situational or external factors. But you may easily attribute your positive behaviors to internal factors. Thus self serving bias may distort attributions, though they may serve to protect your self-esteem.

3. Perceptual Processes affecting communication

Several perceptual processes influence what you observe and what you fail to observe, what you infer or what you fail to infer about another person. These processes enable you to simplify and categorize the vast amount of information around you. But they can also present impediments to accurate perception and cause over simplification or distortion of information.

  1. “Halo Effect” and “Reverse halo effect”

We have the natural tendency to view a number of characteristics linking together in a person both positively or negatively. These implicit rules regarding characteristics of a person can prevent us from perceiving a person or a situation realistically.

You may try this exercise: Choose from the brackets the suitable word for the individual.

  •    John is energetic , eager and .. (intelligent, stupid)
  •    Mary is bold, defiant, an. d … (extroverted, introverted)
  •    Joe is bright, lively and … (thin, fat)
  •    Jane is attractive, intelligent and .. (likable, unlikable)
  •   Sumitha is cheerful, positive and .. (attractive, unattractive)

Thus, you may expect an energetic person to be intelligent, or a bold person to be extroverted, but it does not have to be so. Certain words are chosen as right because of this natural tendency in us which is called the ‘halo effect’ or ‘reverse halo effect’. It means that if you believe that a person has positive qualities, you infer that she or he also possesses other positive qualities or vice versa.


  • You may perceive qualities in a person which they actually are not. e.g. the goodwill you see in charitable acts may be an act of tax evasion.
  • You may ignore or distort qualities that do not conform your theory, but may be present in that person. For example, negative qualities of your friend is ignored, but you easily see them in your enemies.
  1. Self-fulfilling prophecy:

It occurs when you make a prediction that comes true because you act on it as if it were true. There are four steps in it:

  1.    You make a prediction or belief about a person. For example, “Mark is stupid”.
  2.    You act as if your prediction were true. You act as if Mark is going to do things stupidly.
  3.    Because you act as if it is true, it becomes true. Because of how you act towards Mark, he becomes tense and acts stupid.
  4.    You observe your effect on him and gets strengthened in your beliefs. You observe Marks’s behaviour and gets confirmed in you belief.

If you expect people to act in a certain way or if you make prediction about a situation, your predictions will frequently come true because of self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, if you go to a group thinking that other members in that group will not accept you, you may end up feeling rejected because of your behaviour that may provoke their response and confirm your belief.


  •  You may influence another’s behaviour so that it conforms to your prophecy.
  •  You may tend to see what you predict rather than what is really there.
  1. Perceptual accentuation

 “Any port in a storm” is an adage that explains accentuation. Perceptual accentuation leads you to see what you expect and want to see. For example, an alcoholic person may easily spot a bar at the corner of a crowded street hidden among other shops. You magnify that which will satisfy your needs and wants. e.g., a thirsty person is sensitive to cues of possible water supply in the area; a sexually tensed person is very sensitive to sexual cues in the surrounding.

In the same way, the people you like may appear as better looking than those you dislike.

Beware: Due to perceptual accentuation, you may

  •  distort your perceptions of reality. You may perceive what you need or want to perceive.
  •  Filter out or distort information that might damage or threaten your self-image. It makes your self-improvement very difficult. You do not see your own delimiting patterns of behaviour.
  •  Perceive in others the negative qualities you have yourself by projection. For example, persons who often find fault with others exhibit the same qualities which they disdain.
  •  Perceive and remember positive qualities more than negative ones (Pollyanna effect) in self or others. For example, persons with an inflated sense of ego does not recognize their own limitations nor accept corrections.
  • Perceive certain behaviors as indicative that someone likes you simply because you want to be liked. Friendliness used as a persuasive strategy of a salesman is seen as indications of a genuine personal liking. For example, many religious are easily fooled by friendly salesmen or building contractors.

4. Primacy-Recency

      If what comes first exerts influence on your evaluation, primary effect is playing a role. If what comes last exerts most influence, it is recency effect. There is a tendency to use early information to get general idea about a person, and use later information to make this impression more specific. The first impression you make is likely to be the most important. Remember the adage, “first impression is best impression”. It is through this that others will filter additional information in formulating a picture of how they perceive you.

e.g., Study by Solomon Ash (1946). He read descriptive adjectives to students and saw their effects. In the following list, the first was positively evaluated.

Intelligent, industrious, impulsive, critical, stubborn, envious

Envious, stubborn, critical, impulsive, industrious, intelligent..


  • You may tend to formulate a total picture of an individual on the basis of initial impressions that may not be accurate. e.g., a person’s lack of ease may be due to apprehension of initial encounter and you may take him to be socially inept.
  • You may discount or distort subsequent perceptions so as not to disrupt your initial impression. You may fail to notice signs of deceit in someone you like because of early impressions. For example, you may not notice contradictions in the account submitted by a confrere who is your friend.

5. Consistency

It is the tendency to maintain balance among perceptions or attitudes. You expect certain things to go together and other things not to go together. Notice you response in the following sentence completion.

  1. I expect a person I like (to like, dislike) me.
  2. I expect a person I dislike (to like, dislike) me.
  3. I expect my friend to (like, dislike) my friend.
  4. I expect my enemy to (like, dislike) my friend.
  5. I expect my enemy to (like, dislike) my enemy.

Notice that there are certain expectations that go together. You would expect some one whom you like to possess qualities that you like. So also you would expect your freinds to lack unpleasant characteristics and those you dislike to have them.

Beware: You may

  • distort or ignore your perceptions of behaviors that are inconsistent with your picture of the whole person. Eg. misinterpret John’s unhappiness because of your image of John as a “happy-controlled-contented person).
  • See certain behaviors as positive if other behaviors were interpreted positively (halo effect).

6. Stereotyping

Stereo type is a fixed impression of a group of people. We all have attitudinal stereo types of nationals, religious, sexual, religious groups and professions as teachers, plumbers or even prostitutes, criminals etc.

When we have these fixed impressions, when we meet a person from that group, we apply to that person all characteristics that we assign to that group. You will often see in that person’s behaviour manifestations of characteristics that you would not see if you did not know that this person belonged to that group. Stereo types distort accurate perception.

Beware that you may – Perceive an individual as having those qualities that you believe is typical of his group and fail to see the multi faceted nature of the individual.

–          Ignore each person’s unique characteristics.

4. How to increase accuracy in interpersonal perception

  1. Recognize your role in perception. Your emotional and physiological state will influence the meaning you give to perceptions. When you are hungry food may be enjoyable, but during stomach ache, it could be upsetting.
  2. On the basis of our observations of behaviors formulate hypothesis to test against additional information and evidence. Delay formulating conclusions until you have had chance to process many cues.
  3. Look for a variety of cues pointing in the same direction and same conclusion. Be alert to contradictory cues. It is often difficult to acknowledge contradictory evidence.handshake
  4. Regardless of a number of observations and carefully examined hypothesis, you can only guess what is going on in the other’s mind. Motives are not open to outside inspection. We can only make assumptions based on overt behaviors. Hence avoid mind reading.
  5. Beware of your own biases. e.g., perceiving only the positive in people you like, or negative in the people you dislike etc.
  6. Seek validation for your perceptions. Compare your perceptions with those of others.
  7. Check your perceptions with the other person. Describe what you think is happening. “You seem to be angry”. Ask the other person for confirmation. “Are you”.,       “Did my plans upset you?”.


Many strained relationships and personal conflicts can be traced to perceptual limitations. If we are aware of our way of seeing and judging persons, we will be in a better condition to allow the mystique of the Gospel to affect our relationships. Jesus’ style of empowering and compassionate relationships call for a modification of our delimiting perceptual patterns. The more unbiased you are in your perception, the better you will understand others as they are. Communicating accurate understanding is the best homage you can pay to the person of the other.

–          prepared by Fr. Mathew cmf

Suggested Reading

De Vito Joseph, The interpersonal communication Book, 12th Edition, Pearson, NY, 2009

Julia T Wood, Interpersonal Communication: Everyday Encounters, 6th Editon, Wadsworth, Boston, 2010.