2.1 What is Perception in Psychology? – Definition & Theory

Jan 12, 2020 | ch2 Perception & Sensation, Cognitive Psychology, Courses

Perception is the process of recognizing and interpreting sensory stimuli. Learn the definition of perception, how it is related to the five senses, how it differs from reality, and more.

Interpreting Sensory Information

Think of all the ways in which you experience the world around you. For example, you recognize your favorite food by its aroma and the way it looks. You recognize an orange by its round shape, citrus flavor, and its color. You recognize a song by listening to its melody and the singer’s voice. It is through these sensory experiences that we interact with and interpret things in our world. Recognizing and interpreting sensory information, such as sound and smells, are all a part of perception.

Perception Defined

Perception can be defined as our recognition and interpretation of sensory information. Perception also includes how we respond to the information. We can think of perception as a process where we take in sensory information from our environment and use that information in order to interact with our environment. Perception allows us to take the sensory information in and make it into something meaningful.

For example, let’s look at our perception of words. Each letter of the alphabet is in itself a singular letter. When we perceive words, we think of them as one singular unit that is made up of smaller parts called letters. It is through this organization of letters into words that we are able to make something meaningful. That is, we perceive an entire word, and this word has a specific meaning that can be found in the dictionary.

Perception is also necessary for us to survive in our environment. For example, before parents feed their babies microwaved food, they taste it in order to make sure that the temperature isn’t too hot. This involves using sensory information (touch and taste) to make sure that the food is not dangerous for the infant. Before we cross a busy street, we rely on our hearing and sight to make sure a car is not coming. Without the sensory information, we would not be able to judge which food was too hot or when an appropriate time to cross the street would be, which could put us and our children in danger.

The Difference Between Perception and Reality

Suppose that you and a friend are visiting a haunted house and walking through a dark room. The lights come on, and you both notice that the room is moving in circles. You tell your friend that it must have taken a lot of work for them to make the walls of the room spin. Your friend looks at you and says that it is not the room that is spinning, but it is the floor. Which one of you is correct?

Although you both realize that it is an optical illusion, you each came up with different truths as to what is really spinning. Because your perceptions differ, you each have your own version of the truth of the situation. And this truth may or may not be different from what is actually happening.

Because our perceptions are based on our individual sensory information, there is always some level of subjectivity when it comes to perceptions. We can think of perception as a filter through which we experience reality. The reality could be that neither the floor nor the walls are moving, but some other mechanism is causing you to perceive that they are moving. Your perceptions of what is going on would be different from the reality of the situation. Perceptions are subjective and dependent upon the person. Reality is the objective truth.

Lesson Summary

Perception involves using sensory information in order to interact safely and effectively with our environment. We rely on our senses in order to keep us safe and to help us interact with people and things around us. Our perceptions are subjective truths. We can think of perception as a filter through which we experience reality. So, the next time you are having a conversation with a friend and they say, ‘Let’s be objective about this,’ you can explain that you can never truly be objective about anything since perception always involves some level of subjectivity.

Learning Outcomes

Following this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Define perception
  • Explain how perception allows us to utilize sensory information
  • Describe how perception and reality can differ
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