How does perception work?

Hey psych2goers, in this article we will be taking a look at perception. First, we will shortly cover what we mean by perception before introducing you to the attribution theory. After this, we will talk about 6 common effects on perception you may experience. So, without further ado, let’s get into the article. Perception is the process by which individuals observe and interpret. We then base our behaviour on our perception of the world, this is, of course different for everyone. There is a lot of factors influencing it, even time. There are however 6 perception errors/effects which are quite common.  Before getting into those, let’s first quickly cover the attribution theory.

The attribution theory

This theory suggests that when we observe an individual’s behaviour, we attempt to determine whether their behaviour has an internal or external cause. Internal causes are under the control of the individual as opposed to external ones, which are out of a person’s control. It depends on three factors: Distinctiveness, Consensus, Consistency.


This is the question how unusual someone’s behaviour is, how is it different in each situation. When distinctiveness is high, we interpret their behaviour in external factors. It is the other way around for low distinctiveness i.e. Internal attribution


How much does the persons behaviour fall out of the group? Is their behaviour different than what other people would do in this situation? For instance, one student is late but everyone else is on time consensus is low. In a situation where consensus is high, we interpret their behaviour in external factors i.e. external attribution.


To what degree does an individual behave the same way as they normally would in this situation. This is formed over time through observing the individual’s behaviour.  High consistency makes us interpret their behaviour in internal factors, which is internal attribution. Of course, it is the other way around again for a low consistency situation.

The fundamental attribution error

This is the error when we underestimate the weight of external factors and attribute their behaviour to internal factors. For example: a store clerk is very worried about their sick relative and, because of this, act out against a customer. In our minds we then simply attribute this behaviour to them being a bad person while there is an external factor at play.

Self-serving bias

When we win we perceive our own behaviour too much as caused by internal factors. Even when there might be something out of your control affecting you. When we fail however, we blame external factors. A good example everyone will now is tests in highschool. If you passed, you, likely, attributed the succes to internal factors. When you didn’t pass it is highly likely you blamed the test, teacher, day or something else out of your control. This is how the self-serving bias can take place so often since we use it for a lot of situations.

Selective perception

Any characteristics that make a person, object or event stand out from the others makes it more likely that we will perceive it.  We selectively interpret what we observe, this is based on our own background. For example, if you are a kia fan you will see more kia’s driving. This because you selectively interpret what you observe, ignoring other brands of cars.

The halo effect

The halo effect is when we draw a general impression on the basis of one single characteristic. An example of this is that we perceive people who laugh as more open. We take the one characteristic and say: I observe this, therefore this and this must also be true. It is based on what we associate with the one characteristic we identified.

The contrast effect

We do not evaluate what we observe in isolation. Our reaction to one individual is influenced by another interaction we had with a different individual. For instance, if a bus driver offended us it can influence our behaviour toward the person we sit next to on that same bus.


Stereotyping means: judging someone on the basis of our perception of the group they belong too. We simplify what kind of person they are. The others are like this; thus, all the others are like this as well. Monitoring your use of stereotypes is important, because it can negatively influence your perception.

Perceiving is an inherent part of being a human. When we perceive, we take the information and try to make sense of it. This leads to us attributing what we see to either: things out of the persons control (external) or things within control (internal). We do this by judging what we perceived on three factors: consensus, distinctiveness and consistency. This, however, is prone to errors/effects of which we discussed 6 in this text.

These 6 effects are quite common and are a part of everyday life. Now that you are more aware of these effects, you can identify them more easily. This will help you understand your own, and other people’s behaviour better. This concludes our article on perception, we hope you enjoyed it. Below you will find some interesting follow-up articles.

Interesting follow up articles:

Tips For A More Positive Mindset



10 Perceptions That Cause Depression and Anxiety

9 Signs of Antisocial Personality Disorder


Arkin, R. M., Appelman, A. J., & Burger, J. M. (1980). Social anxiety, self-presentation, and the self-serving bias in causal attribution. Journal of personality and social psychology38(1), 23.

Broadbent, D. E. (2013). Perception and communication. Elsevier.

Kelley, H. H. (1967). Attribution theory in social psychology. In Nebraska symposium on motivation. University of Nebraska Press.

Kelley, H. H., & Michela, J. L. (1980). Attribution theory and research. Annual review of psychology31(1), 457-501.

Powers, W. T., & Powers, W. T. (1973). Behavior: The control of perception (p. ix). Chicago: Aldine.

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