Social Perception

Social perception theories and investigations deal with the nature, causes, and consequences of perceptions of social entities, including one’s self, other individuals, social categories, and aggregates or groups to which one may or may not belong. The content of a perception can be virtually any property. Individual attributes may include personality traits, behavioral dispositions, physical characteristics, and ability evaluations. Group attributes can include properties such as size, cohesiveness, cultural traits, stratification patterns, network patterns, legitimacy, and historical elements. With some notable exceptions, however, the field of social perception traditionally has emphasized the micro side, focusing on individual inferences regarding one individual or a very small number of other individuals.

Social perception is best viewed as an umbrella label that covers a range of loosely related and usually loosely formulated theoretical conjectures and associated research. Today ‘‘social cognition’’ may be the more popular label, subsuming theory and research indexed under numerous other headings: person perception, social judgment, social representation, schema theory, reference group theory, impression formation, attribution theory, and more. Little of this work will be discussed here, although most of it is easy to access. Reference lists in books, chapters, and articles under the various headings tend to intersect rather than be isolated. Review articles have appeared with regularity, and so it is relatively easy to locate the seminal, general, or esoteric references one seeks.

This article provides an introduction and selective overview of the social perception area, with additional attention to some threads that have been or could be of particular interest within sociology. First there is a brief discussion of perception in general, followed by sections that divide the field into three major realms: self-perception, person perception, and group perception.

Perception

Social perception is only one manifestation of the general phenomenon of human perception. All perceptions begin with energy-producing events, either inside people or from the environment. Each of the senses operates as a ‘‘transducer,’’ encoding a particular form of energy (e.g., radiant, kinetic, chemical) into neurological signals that are carried to the brain as complex, parallel streams of bioelectrical impulses. In the brain, these streams of information are filtered and transformed through several stages, producing dynamic neural representations almost instantaneously. Depending on anatomic factors, prior experiences, and the nature of the signals, these representations may or may not reach the level of conscious awareness. When sensations survive this elaborate preprocessing and exceed sensory thresholds, however, they break through into a person’s conscious awareness,appearing as coherent and meaningful perceptions: hunger pangs, one’s reflection in the mirror, a smile from a friend. These perceptions seem to capture all the essential properties of the events that instigated them.

Roughly speaking, then, people acquire energetic impulses from internal and external environments that, in turn, impinge on the sensory apparatuses as sensations and are transformed by the brain into perceptions. This suggests a close relationship between the perceptions that are formed and the subsequent actions taken on their behalf. For instance, on the basis of perceptions of the personal qualities of others (and perceptions of others’ perceptions of those qualities), people make judgments about those qualities (e.g., good or bad); on the basis of those judgments, people formulate intentions about how they will behave toward others (e.g., plan to engage with them or avoid them); on the basis of those intentions, the actions of others, the prevailing context, and so on, people enact their impressions and intentions in social interactions.

Three qualities of perceptions bear further elaboration: Structure, stability, and meaning are definitive subjective properties (Schneider et al. 1979). A fourth quality—accuracy—is best understood as an objective property of perceptions, at least in principle. Accuracy and bias in social perception are addressed later in this article.

Structure

Humans experience the world as structured. Rather than seeming chaotic and unpredictable, elements and events generally appear to correspond to one another in patterned ways. Things seem to happen for reasons. Much of this patterning is imposed, however, and one person’s perceptions may be very different from those of others, even under identical conditions. This is especially relevant in regard to the interpretations people impose on complex phenomena. For instance, people tend not to be aware of how differences in the expectations they bring to a situation color their perceptions. People cannot take in information on everything around them and those expectations direct a person to attend selectively to the available stimuli in a situation. This biasing of attention can have a tremendous influence on interpretations of the situation. Moreover, each person may impose a unique subjective structure on the same objective reality. Every sports fan has experienced the perception that compared to the opponent, his or her favored team is consistently the victim of ‘‘bad calls’’ by the officials. Supporters of the opponent generally disagree, and rarely does one perceive the opposition to have been treated unfairly by officials. What fans actually ‘‘see’’ are slices of reality unconsciously chosen to conform with their beliefs and expectations.

Stability

Different sports fans may see different things, but if pressed, they probably could identify broad areas of the game they agree about and take for granted. They would agree that there were no sudden changes in the sport they were watching; they would profess not to have seen players on the field dematerializing in one place and rematerializing elsewhere; the ball appears to stay the same size and shape even as it moves nearer to and farther from the fans’ points of view. In general, while observers may disagree on some points, most of what is observed has an underlying sense of continuity. Indeed, among the myriad sensations to which one might attend in a given situation, the bias is toward those which engender a sense of stability—a sense of the temporal endurance of these patterned sensations.

Meaning

If structure and stability were the only properties of experience, the world would appear merely as successions of discrete, insignificant objects and events, each with no particular import transcending the moment. In contrast, most perceptions seem meaningful. That is, perceptions are conceived of as threads in a larger fabric. Through their interconnections and the patterns they form, they seem to have significance, purpose, causes, and consequences beyond their own existence. With cognitive development comes the ability to recognize and select impressions and events that are significant in terms of the information they convey. As will be discussed below, meaningfulness and significance do not imply accuracy. Perceptions—especially social perceptions—are imperfect representations that can be highly misleading.

Among the variety of ways in which one could organize the social perception literature, one of the simplest and most useful proceeds from the individual perceiver, to perceptions of other individuals, and finally to group perceptions. These categories define the three sections below, which are followed by some remarks about future directions.

Self-Percception

Self-perception is social perception with the self as the object. Through introspection and information from others, people develop beliefs about their many qualities: personality, physical appearance, behavioral tendencies, moral stature, athletic prowess, and the like. ‘‘Self-concept’’ is the general term for the system of beliefs about the self. Although introspection is a source of selfknowledge (Andersen and Williams 1985), mounting evidence suggests that it is not the predominant source that people used to believe it is and that it is generally biased and inaccurate (Nisbett and Wilson 1977; Wilson et al. 1981).

One major branch of self-perception research focuses on inaccuracies in self-knowledge, and a second on how information from others shapes the self-concept. An example of work in the first branch is a review by Greenwald (1980) of evidence of three types of self-conceptual biases:

(1) egocentricity: the anchoring of judgments, recollections, thought experiments, and attributions about others with reference to the self,

(2) beneffectance: the tendency to perceive the self as generally efficacious, and

(3) cognitive conservatism: a resistance to cognitive change.

Bem’s influential self-perception theory (1972) asserts that in conditions of uncertainty, people use their own behavior as a guide to inferences about their inner selves. Later approaches to the self-concept focus on structures such as category systems, conceptual networks, and complex schemas that can represent explicit connections and nonconnections among elements of the self-concept (Greenwald and Pratkanis [1984] provide a review).

The early insights of Cooley (1964[1902]) and Mead (1934) still guide sociological theory and research on the social origins of the self-concept, the second branch mentioned above. Cooley described the ‘‘looking-glass self’’ as the use of others’ appraisals as mirrors of the ‘‘true’’ self. Mead noted that the images people form of themselves are greatly affected by how they imagine significant others would respond to and evaluate them. Social comparison theory (Festinger 1954; Suls and Miller 1977) deals with, among other issues, the question of whom one refers to when seeking comparative self-knowledge and the effects of the various available social referents on one’s selfconcept and behavior.

Under the rubric of self-perception also are found topics such as self-efficacy, self-evaluation, self-esteem, and self-identity. Self-efficacy is the perception of one’s competence with respect to specific tasks (Bandura 1986; Cervone and Peake 1986). Self-esteem is the extent to which one thinks positively about oneself (Rosenberg 1979). The concept of self-evaluation, when distinguished from efficacy and esteem, has been used in theory and research on how the characteristics of evaluators affect self-evaluations in specific, collective task situations (Webster and Sobieszek 1974). There are two major approaches to self-identity: identity theory (Stryker 1980; Burke 1991) and social identity theory (Hogg and Abrams 1988; Hogg et al. 1995). Although there are many shared concepts in these approaches, identity theory is distinguished by a greater emphasis on the performance of social roles as the source of self-definitions; in contrast, social identity theory emphasizes the ways in which self-categorizations hinge on salient properties of the groups with which individuals align themselves.

The more strongly a person’s identity is tied to a particular social role or category, the greater is the extent to which that individual empathizes with other occupants of that role or category. It is as if the boundary between self and others became blurred, and the individual empathizes with similar others to whom good things and bad things happen. For instance, an experiment by Markovsky (1985) subtly emphasized self-identification versus group identification and created unjust reward allocations to both individuals and groups. The subjects responded more strongly to the type of injustice that corresponded to their identification.

Person Perception

The core of social perception theory and research addresses how people formulate impressions about the inner qualities and outward behaviors of other individuals. The focal points for this work include the properties of the people who are perceived and the characteristics of the situations in which a perception is developed, the logic by which basic sensations are integrated to form complex social perceptions, and the way in which perceptions, once formed, are affected by new information.

Attribution theories are concerned with how people form inferences about the causes of others’ behaviors. The basic question in these approaches concerns the conditions under which another person’s behavior is attributed to an internal disposition or to aspects of the situation in which it occurred ( Jones et al. 1989). The so-called fundamental attribution error is the pervasive tendency for observers to underestimate the impact of situational factors on others’ behavior (Ross 1977). In fact, people tend to make personal attributions for others’ behavior and situational attributions for their own ( Jones and Nisbett 1972). Gilbert (1989) has modified this question in a fruitful way by asserting that personal attributions occur automatically; situational attributions occur only as the possible result of an effortful search for additional information (Gilbert et al. 1988).

Although schemas could be discussed under the ‘‘self-perception’’ and ‘‘group perception’’ headings, most often they are invoked in theory and research on person perception. Schemas are organized structures of cognitions pertaining to social objects such as the self, other persons, groups, roles, and events (Taylor and Crocker 1981). Thus, one’s schema for ‘‘college professor’’ may include beliefs such as ‘‘intelligent’’ and ‘‘scattered,’’ negative attitudes such as ‘‘inaccessible’’ and ‘‘too political,’’ and expectations for behaviors such as ‘‘lecturing’’ and ‘‘conducting research.’’ Schemas have a variety of effects on social perception. For instance, they induce people to attend to certain social and situational features, influence people’s judgments by inducing particular expectations for the consequences of their actions, and affect how people recollect social events by making some pieces of information more salient than others. Schemas also transcend individuals by becoming cultural elements that can be communicated among group members or from parent to child.

Other approaches to person perception focus on the integration of bits of information associated with particular others. Information integration theory (Anderson 1981) provides rigorous mathematical models of how an observer employs weighted combinations of another individual’s traits to form an overall impression. Social applications of psychophysics (Stevens 1975; Lodge 1981) apply a magnitude scaling technology first developed for expressing judgments of physical properties (e.g., weight, brightness, numerosity, sound pressure, saltiness) to the quantification and validation of judgments of personal or social properties (e.g., competence, fairness, attractiveness). Status characteristics theory (Berger et al. 1985) explains the emergence of status and influence hierarchies in collective, task-performing groups on the basis of individuals’ relative standings on combinations of salient characteristics that can order interaction whether or not they are explicitly relevant to a task.

The accuracy of social perceptions was an early research focus but languished for years because of conceptual and methodological roadblocks (Cronbach 1955; Zebrowitz 1990; Fiske 1993). One problem is that determining accuracy requires the existence of a criterion against which a social perception is judged. Often, however, there is no assurance that the criterion is accurate because it may be arbitrary, subjective, or biased. Research in this area has seen a resurgence in recent years, however, partly as a result of approaches like Kenny and Albright’s (1987) social relations model. That approach measures the accuracy of judgments of a given characteristic by using multiple observers and targets, permitting the researcher to control for observers’ response sets, targets’ attributes, and other aspects of the relationships between observers and targets. A mere recent trend is to attempt to disentangle the combined effects of observers’ expectancies and targets’ characteristics, specifying the conditions under which either set of factors predominates in determining social perceptions.

In a related vein, attributional and social perceptual biases constitute a vast field of inquiry. In recent years, a number of universal human perceptual inclinations have been cataloged that are capable of generating perceptual biases. Many perceptions depend on the ability to gauge one’s relevant behaviors and characteristics, yet people often have difficulty assessing their own qualities and properties in an absolute way (Bem 1972). Preconceived notions powerfully influence subsequent perceptions by inducing selective perceptions. Once an idea is accepted, falsifying information is discounted and verifying information is accepted uncritically. People not only are subject to such errors of perception, they also underestimate the degree to which this is so. They are overconfident in their judgments; employ useless, distracting, and unrepresentative information contained in anecdotes; and infer illusory covariations among social characteristics. In recent years, cognitive and social psychologists have begun to identify and systematically examine these and other types of social perceptual biases. (For some examples, see Taylor and Fiske 1978; Taylor et al. 1978; Nisbett and Ross 1980; Kahneman et al. 1982; and Goldstein and Hogarth 1997.)

Group Perception

Two sets of approaches to group perception predominate: those concerned with reference group choices and effects, and those addressing social categorization processes. A reference group is a set of individuals whose standing or perspective is taken into account by an actor in selecting a course of action or making a judgment about a specific issue (Farmer 1992).

Research on reference group phenomena represents one of the first and longest-lived attempts in sociology and social psychology to understand how individuals orient themselves to groups, which groups they choose, and the consequences of their choices. (See the early work of Newcomb [1943] and Merton and Rossi [1968] and the more recent review by Singer [1981].) Among the functions of reference groups are providing sources for normative information and offering bases for social comparisons (Gecas 1982). Normative information dictates ostensibly correct and incorrect courses of action and positive and negative values. For example, people may adopt as their own the expressed values of respected members of the community or may assert a position opposite to that held by a disrespected group. In a similar way, social comparisons with reference groups provide bases for evaluating one’s beliefs, actions, and accomplishments. For instance, without making reference to the set of people with incomes comparable to one’s own, it is impossible to gauge one’s level of generosity in donating money to charitable organizations. Three hundred dollars donated in a year may seem high until one discovers that the average donation of people in one’s income bracket is ten times that amount.

Although virtually everyone makes use of reference groups, which reference groups one selects for one’s comparisons and what consequences follow from those selections are more complex issues. Reference group choices have been shown in both natural and experimental settings to be influenced by numerous factors, including attitude similarity, structural inducements, and normative prescriptions. The consequences of referential comparisons that have been studied include the treatment of social deviants and the emergence of negative social evaluations, changes in self-esteem, and feelings of relative deprivation, gratification, or inequity. Although a good deal of interesting research and many theoretical conjectures have been associated with this area of inquiry, as Singer (1981) noted, there is no reference group theory per se, and the explanatory promise of this area remains unfulfilled. However, many of the research lines spawned by interest in reference groups remain active.

The reference group literature takes as given the existence of groups and the issue of which people are and are not members. Social categorization approaches (Tajfel 1981; Wilder 1986; Abrams and Hogg 1999) are closely related to the social identification literature noted earlier and view the perception of membership versus nonmembership as problematic. In general, people say that they detest being categorized and avoid categorizing others. However, social categorization is a manifestation of a perceptual process that is fundamental to survival. Everyone does it, consciously or not. By learning to recognize and categorize elements of their environments, humans are able to distinguish nutriment from poison and ally from adversary.

Despite its indispensability, the categorization process has side effects in the social realm. The most important and robust of these effects is the tendency for people to overestimate differences between groups and underestimate differences among group members. ‘‘They’’ appear uniform, but ‘‘we’’ are individuals (Quattrone 1986). This phenomenon lies at the heart of stereotyping: the overgeneralization of perceived group attributes (Stangor and Lange 1994). Once formed, stereotypes are maintained by virtue of the types of perceptual biases previously noted, such as forming illusory correlations and relying on anecdotes. A classic finding in research on social identity (Tajfel 1982; Turner 1987) demonstrated that arbitrary we-they distinctions created by random assignments to groups in a laboratory setting were sufficient to produce in-group favoritism and a variety of negative attributions regarding the out-group.

Discrimination—the differential treatment of others solely on the basis of their group memberships— and prejudice—negative attitudes toward certain groups and their members—are common behavioral manifestations of perceptual stereotyping. In American society and in the social and behavioral sciences, gender- and race-based forms of discrimination and prejudice have received the most attention (Eagly 1987; Dovidio and Gaertner 1986, respectively), although the list of bases for discrimination is probably as long as the list of conceivable social characteristics.

Future Directions

Social perception theory and research embrace multiple levels of analysis: cognitive processing, individual and interpersonal behavior, perceptions of groups, and group behavior. The social perception theories that may hold the greatest promise for the future are those amenable to integrating explicit formulations developed within these different levels of analysis. Undoubtedly, much social perception research in the near term will be business as usual, identifying new theoretical contingencies and empirical patterns. However, social and behavioral scientists are developing new approaches to modeling social and social psychological phenomena that may prove fruitful in social perception research.

Burt (1982) integrated a psychophysical model of human perception with explicit models of social network structure. The result is a conceptualization of social groupings at any scale in which network members

(1) receive information about certain properties of others (e.g., resource holdings, attitudes),

(2) take into account structural information about those others (e.g., the patterns of their social relations and of their relations’ relations),

(3) evaluate and combine the information received, and

(4) make self-referential comparisons involving the information obtained from the network (e.g., relative resource holdings).

The models show precisely how structural configurations of social relationships, in combination with individually based social perception and comparison processes, can theoretically account for a far broader class of phenomena than can either individual- level theories that do not consider structures or structural theories that do not consider individuals. Unfortunately, this formulation has not inspired a corresponding program of research, and the potential contributions of this innovative approach have not been tapped.

Significant progress has been made, however, using network models of a different sort. Within a broader class of approaches known as complexity theory (Eve et al. 1997), neural network models (Read and Miller 1998) and related alternatives (Carley and Svoboda 1996; Macy and Skvoretz 1998; Gilbert and Conte 1995) are beginning to account for social perception phenomena using parallel distributed processing models. This is a type of computer simulation in which numerous interconnected elements (e.g., neurons or agents) repeatedly receive, process, and respond to information from their environments, which may consist largely of similar elements. For example, using this approach, Smith and DeCoster (1998) devised a unified computational model that accomplishes several feats: It learns the social characteristics it ‘‘perceives’’ in individual cases and recognizes those characteristics from partial cues, learns stereotypes from exposure to multiple cases and recognizes those stereotypes from partial cues, and develops novel concepts from old ones. Although so-called connectionist approaches are relatively new, findings such as these bode well for further investigations.

There is no lack of good ideas in the social perception field, and this area may well play a central role in future attempts to integrate micro and macro sociology. Lacking, however, are concerted, programmatic efforts to develop and test explicit and rigorous social perception theories. Some exceptions were noted above. For the most part, however, the absence of explicitness and rigor has resulted in a minimal level of competition among different approaches, virtually no critical testing between formulations, and few timetested conceptual and methodological refinements. However, this area remains attractive to a large number of psychologists and sociologists, in part because of its many unanswered questions and the ubiquity of its phenomena.

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This Aricle was Written by
BARRY MARKOVSKY

This Article was Published in
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SOCIOLOGY
Second Edition
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