6.9 Selective Perception: Theory & Examples

Jan 13, 2020 | Cognitive Psychology, Courses, ch6 Attentional Processes & Theories

In this lesson, we will discuss selective perception and the selective perception theory. Learn more about selective perception from examples. Then test your knowledge with a quiz.

Example of Selective Perception

Jane is an avid runner and a self-proclaimed health nut. She spends two hours each day at the gym, eats only healthy, low-fat meals, and is a member of several online fitness groups. Jane is also a cigarette smoker. Though she knows about the health risks of smoking, Jane believes that she will not have any adverse health risks as long as she exercises, eats well, and smokes less than one pack a day.

While looking through a fitness magazine, Jane came across two advertisements. One was for a book about weightlifting for women, and the other was an advertisement about the dangers of smoking tobacco products. After reading the advertisements, Jane went online and purchased the weightlifting book. However, she paid no attention to the smoking advertisement and forgot about it before she made it to the last page of the magazine.

Selective Perception Theory

Selective perception refers to the process by which we select, categorize, and analyze stimuli from our environment to create meaningful experiences while blocking out stimuli that contradicts our beliefs or expectations. That is, we focus on certain aspects in our environment while excluding others. In our example, Jane focused her attention on the weightlifting advertisement while completely ignoring the smoking ad, which contradicted her beliefs about smoking.

The selective perception theory holds that we filter stimuli both consciously and unconsciously as we perceive the stimuli. Consciously, we are able to block out certain stimuli, such as colors, sounds, and images. We can consciously focus our attention on specific stimuli and disregard distracting, unimportant, or contradicting information. In other words, we actively choose what information we digest and what we discard. This skill enables us to turn our attention away from certain stimuli and handle the multiple distractions that we encounter throughout our day.

However, selective perception also happens unconsciously, without any purposeful effort on our part. For example, there have been studies that found that we are more likely to recognize certain shapes and colors within our field of vision than others.

Both personal factors and the characteristics of the stimuli influence what we choose to focus on. This is because what we expect is largely determined by personal factors, such as prior experiences, wants and needs, desires, values, gender, age, and interests. For example, Jane focused more on the weightlifting advertisement because she is interested in fitness. She ignored the smoking advertisement, however, because she has no interest in quitting smoking and it contradicts her attitudes about smoking. In another example, a person who is hungry might focus more attention on a fast food commercial than on a motorcycle advertisement because of the tasty food images that the commercial displays.

Example in a Research Study

In the 1950s, researchers Albert Hastorf and Hadley Cantril conducted a study in which they surveyed students from Dartmouth and Princeton following a rough football match between the schools that had resulted in several injuries. Hastorf and Cantril asked the students which team they thought was responsible for the rough play. Many of the students blamed the opposing team. In other words, students interpreted what they saw in a way that went along with their expectations and beliefs about the team that they supported, and the opposing team was perceived as violent and the cause of the injuries.

Lesson Summary

Selective perception is the process by which we focus our attention on certain stimuli while ignoring stimuli that we deem unimportant or that contradicts our values and expectations. According to selective perception theory, we consciously and unconsciously filter out information. What we choose to focus on is determined by personal factors and the stimuli itself. So the next time you hear two different summaries of the same event, remember that selective perception is taking place.

Learning Outcomes

Completing this lesson should help you accomplish the following:

  • Define selective perception
  • Describe the theory of selective perception
  • Recall the research that was conducted to determine this theory
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