Selective Perception: How it Affects Our View of the World

We often choose to see or understand what we want to. This is known as selective perception. Find out how this can affect your way of seeing life in this article.
Selective Perception: How it Affects Our View of the World
Gema Sánchez Cuevas

Reviewed and approved by the psychologist Gema Sánchez Cuevas.

Written by Sonia Budner

Last update: 21 December, 2022

Selective perception is a very common cognitive distortion that affects your perception. It makes you see, listen, or focus your attention on a stimulus based on your expectations, without taking into account the rest of the information.

An example is when you decide to purchase a cheap car, but then start to look at other, more expensive models. Another example would be when you’re waiting for someone and you think you know which direction they’ll be coming from.

It all relates to your preconceived ideas, interests, desires, and fears regarding different events and situations. It all comes down to a biased and partial interpretation of reality. Selective perception optimizes your cognitive resources and focuses them on something that you expect to happen.

In addition, your emotions have a lot to do with this process. You create a parallel scenario to work with, which can be more or less similar to what actually happens. Thus, this becomes your reality, and selective perception plays an important role in it.

How are filters created in selective perception?

There are two models that try to explain this process:

  • The Posner model. This divides the perception of the message into three stages: changes in attention, engagement, and attention disengagement. This means that the message captures our attention, and we begin to process the new information along with our perception, and then direct our attention towards other stimuli.
  • The La Berge model. This is complementary to the Posner model and also has three stages: selection, preparation, and maintenance. The last stage is the time we spend perceiving the message.

In both models, your mind identifies a process and carries out the selective perception on the process, and not on a single action.

A mind with selective perception.

What influences us?

Mainly two types of phenomena influence us: the nature of the stimulus and the internal aspects of each one. The nature of the stimuli refers to sensory aspects by which we perceive some stimuli more intensely than others. These can involve characteristics such as size, color, shape, movement, location, or elements of surprise.

Regarding an individual’s internal aspects, the two most important ones we have are expectations and motivation. What you perceive most strongly are the things you expect to see or those that interest you. This can activate involuntary attention. These are the things that capture your attention instinctively, such as a baby crying.

Advertisers use this to their advantage, in order to turn your attention to the most striking characteristics of the items they want you to buy.

This phenomenon causes perceptual distortions such as:

  • Selective exposure. When you only see and hear what you want.
  • Selective attention. It makes you focus on what interests you by discarding the rest of the information.
  • Perceptual defense. When you erase the elements that threaten you from your perceptual field.

Selective perception: A double-edged sword

Selective perception is a mechanism that allows you to filter the relevant information and avoid a stimuli overload. However, in many situations, it will cause you to lose or miss out on very valuable information.

The amount of stimuli that you’re able to perceive is enormous. As a recipient of advertising messages, you’re the target of hundreds of messages that will greatly influence your behavior.

It also occurs in romantic relationships because you can ignore important information as you tend to perceive what you find interesting or meets your expectations. It even occurs when you buils the concept you have of yourself because it makes it difficult to be objective.

A man with a cloud for a head.

Dearborn and Simon studied the effect of selective perception on executives of large companies. They concluded that the understanding of complex stimuli is deeper when they aren’t new to us.

They also studied the case of relationships between bosses and employees. Their conclusions were that the positive or negative image that managers have of their employees determines the way in which they evaluate their performance.

This is another example of how we perceive what we’re expecting to perceive.

Thus, taking everything we have spoken about into account, we can conclude that our perception plays an important role in how we configure and view the world we live and work in.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.