Social Perception: What You Think of Others and What They Think of You

What do others think about you? How good do you think you are at answering this question? In this article, we address the concept of social perception.
Social Perception: What You Think of Others and What They Think of You
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 07 December, 2021

Much of what you believe about others isn’t true. In fact, you might well think you’re a real Sherlock Holmes in social perception, yet you fail in every inference and reading of the behavior of others. However, you fail because, in real life, nothing is as complex as trying to understand people and get a true picture of what they’re really like.

No doubt at some point in your life you’ve found yourself trying to work out why someone’s behaving in a certain way. For example, if you see someone crying at a bus stop, you might assume that they’re having problems in their love life. Or, you imagine that the worried woman talking on her cell phone in her car looks that way because she’s just been told some bad news.

As a matter of fact, there are thousands of examples of these imaginative interpretations that your mind makes concerning many of the situations you find yourself facing in your daily life. However, in almost 80 percent of these cases, you’ll have been wrong. This isn’t a mere assumption, science confirms it. Furthermore, a study reveals that most of us make inaccurate assumptions about how others see us.

The fact that you take many things as certain doesn’t mean that they really are. In fact, you construct your truth through social perception. This can sometimes mean you suffer for no real reason. It also reinforces certain notable prejudices and stereotypes.

Man talking about social perception

Social perception

Social perception defines those mental processes that allow you to make inferences and impressions about other people. They’re the considerations and interpretations that you make when witnessing the behavior of others, their appearances, and their verbal and non-verbal language.

Psychological research on this topic began in the late 1950s. This was thanks to the work of Austrian psychologist, Fritz Heider. He was a leading figure in the Gestalt school of psychology. He published a work entitled The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations. This laid the foundation for understanding how we evaluate others.

Later, Solomon Asch was a pioneer in explaining how we build those first impressions that we make when meeting someone. According to Asch, we look at some central features (appearance) and from there we deduce other peripheral features (personality).

Asch also suggested that social perception isn’t a reflection of reality, but for us, as people, it’s our truth. Of course, this can sometimes be problematic.

You perceive the world through a distorted lens

Social perception acts as a lens through which you view reality. However, you must be careful because this lens is distorted. Indeed, it’s not an exact reflection, and yet you’re unaware of this fact. In fact, in reality, you look at the world and the people in it through badly prescribed spectacles.

However, why is this the case? The problem lies in the fact that you analyze the world through factors such as emotions, preconceptions, education, genetic predispositions, prejudices, stereotypes, and endless other cognitive distortions. The well-known psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, who received the Nobel Prize in economics, is an expert on these distorting factors.

As a matter of fact, you use dozens of cognitive distortions. These create a subjective social reality that’s nothing like the objective social reality. Nevertheless, you may wonder if there’s anything wrong with living in your own kind of reality. After all, don’t you have the right to draw your own conclusions and live by them?

As a matter of fact, you need to be careful, because social perception can cause you to make inferences loaded with prejudices. Furthermore, this psychological construct is the one that also causes you to possess radical perceptions about things and make it difficult for you to reach agreements. Finally, you might accept others’ interpretations of you that completely limit your potential and well-being.

One of the greatest challenges that human beings face is in ensuring that their social perceptions are as close to reality as possible. Only in this way can we shape a more respectful society, free from hasty and dangerous judgments.

Woman looking in mirror thinking about social perception

The way we think we’re perceived and useless suffering

For some the earth is flat. For others, having a certain skin color is dangerous. There are those who are fearful and those who trust in the goodness of the human being. Indeed, social perception means each one of us has a preferred reality that we position ourselves in it. Rather like the settler who conquers their plot of moral and ideological land to live in.

Social perception is also related to the way you think others see you. This, at times, can be problematic. In fact, you make constant evaluations of how those around you may be perceiving you. Did they like you?  Did they find you interesting or ignorant? Weak or determined? Boring or witty?

Harvard, Cornell, Essex, and Yale Universities conducted research that confirmed the fact that we tend to underestimate the impact we create on others. The study claimed that, after a conversation with a stranger, it’s common to believe that we haven’t made a good impression on them. However, this is often a mistake.

Social perception and the liking gap

Obviously, you can’t be liked by everyone. However, your own social perception of the impression you make on others is almost always neutral or negative. This is called the liking gap. Nevertheless, in reality, you’re liked more than you think.

For this reason, you should stop doubting your worth or your impact on those around you, because it’s far easier to like than to dislike. You also have a poorly adjusted lens to look at yourself. This acts almost like a baseball bat hitting your self-esteem. Try and avoid it.

It’s time to shape a social perception closer to reality. In this way, you’ll suffer less. You’ll also be less prone to hasty judgments, stereotypes, and prejudices.

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  • Boothby, E. J., & Bohns, V. K. (2021). Why a simple act of kindness is not as simple as it seems: Underestimating the positive impact of our compliments on others. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 47(5), 826–840. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167220949003
  • Boothby, E. J., Cooney, G., Sandstrom, G. M., & Clark, M. S. (2018). The liking gap in conversations: Do people like us more than we think? Psychological Science, 29(11), 1742–1756. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797618783714