Perception & representation:
how we see and interpret things

Sensorial perception, mental representation.
Interpreting, understanding, generalizing, framing


Perception by our senses is our first step to understand something.

The second step is representation in which the perception is associated
with a mental, more abstract, model, image, interpretation.

Mental distortions and shortcuts (selective perception, representativeness
heuristics, framing.) can meddle in both steps.
We might see things and invent things that are far from realities

Are our senses and our mind telling us the truth?

The understanding process, and its traps

First we perceive it, then we sort it into a representation

Maybe we don't suspect it when we see what looks like a hole in one of
our socks or an appetizing fruit on a market stall but, if we identify it as
such, it is because a mental process comprising several steps and various
mental factors leads us to understand or interpret things,
situations and issues
, and to do something about it.

Newton used it in a perfect way when an apple fell on his nose ;-)

The problem is that, in some crucial situations with heavy incidences on
our life,
many traps
can distort the process and lead to wrong mental
paths.
There are even cases in decision decision making when we short-
circuit the observing / inquiring / thinking phases
and we just react
on
autopilot to the "stimulus" without trying to understand the
situation.

To decide on "gut feeling"
or" smart intuition (our neurons work
even when our conscious thinking is inactive or overloaded)
might
be OK in some cases, it can even make suspect that "there is more
to it than meet the eyes", so better run or at least be wary.
Life asks us to
action act, not just to think.

But such uncontrolled reflexes might also lead to destructive
behaviors.

To decide and behave soundly is not always to "shoot first, think
later"
whatever the situation. Therefore we should have some
understanding of our mental process to avoid some decision traps.

Sensation, attention, observation, perception

signal loupe Perception, based on sensation, is the first step to identify
something.

It takes place basically at the level of one or several of our five senses
when we get an external information and we give it a first / immediate
/ automatic interpretation

(which can be later refined into a more abstract representation /
 model
).
.

Actually it is often
immediately mentally positioned within an
existing representation: we see an apple, we put it into the mental
"apple" category
.

Sensation => Perception => Representation

A few perception hurdles

Sensory misperception

What we perceive and observe are sensory impressions and
appearances
, which could differ from the realities behind
the scene
.

Here are some example of hurdles that can distort the perception or
even lead to  a mirage (illusory /wrong / false perception) :
  • Simple defects of attention
They might make us miss some basic aspects (and also
neglect some
signal "weak signals", and in the contrary
privilege some trite ones sent at us with bells and whistle).

Optical illusions are well known cases in which we can be
trapped by false similarities (not a smoking gun, your
honor, just a smoking pipe!).
Habits and reflexes also can make us bypass an attentive
observation.
  • The observer / decider can project its own beliefs
(or knowledge, experience, memory)

That might distort the person's vision of the situation or issue.

Also people might take common conventions (= beliefs and
practices accepted by the group or society) at their face value.
  • Narrow-minded attitudes can make neglect information
or can even make avoid of reject it. Here also it is because it
does not fit our knowledge or beliefs.

We have here :
"selective attention / selective perception /
selection bias /
selective exposure".

Those phenomena that can be based on :
  • Either mental neglect / laziness
  • Or denial / cognitive dissonance.

Mental representation

Drawing pictures within our brain
brain presentation Mental representation is a further step, more
                         
elaborate than a spontaneous perception.

It is a phase in which takes place in the understanding of what we
perceived.

Here, our intellect gets really interested and associates our
perception to a broader interpretation, an abstraction,
a model, a notion, an image.


=> At the difference of a simple perception, it will stay stored in our
     "long memory"


Our brain build representations by

* shaping mental pictures and categories,

* bringing explanatory theories / hypotheses,

* linking a perception to already known notions and
   definitions
(or in some cases building new ones)...
   As seen above
it is often a simultaneous process we see an
   apple, we put it in the mental "apple" category ..
.with the risk
   that in fact it might be a pear.

What can influence our representations

Cognitive and emotional factors
, among them mental habits
(see below "representativeness heuristic"), influence human
representations.

Also peer mimicry / conformity is a factor.
Here, some collective representation / beliefs (either well
grounded common knowledge or just common stereotypes)
influence individual representations.

It is even a purpose of kids' education as a way to adapt them to social
standardsand it goes on all along our life
as society is built on exchange
between people.


Availability heuristic and 
representativeness heuristic

Let us enter the
heuristic and behavioral biases area.
Details can be found in the related articles.
  • For example, the availability heuristic
makes us jump at the first interpretation / explanation
that crosses our mind, something linked to a apparently similar
recent
event or to the first "good stories" we can invent.
  • As for representativeness heuristic, another frequent example,
it is a repetitive, preset, stereotyped interpretation by which
we place new events together into past mental categories
(sterotypes) and notions
.

The category might be real or illusory, and when real, be
relevant or not to the new situation .
When this representation is thus biased it can bring
decision
making mistakes

Such stereotypes can be individual biases but are often also
common to a whole group or population

Framing, reductionism, generalization

Framing is a presentation / formulation of a situation or issue we
make by generalizing a few elements while ignoring others (reductionism).

This abusive simplification / generalization can result from
selective attention / perception / representation as seen above, but also
from outsidemanipulation.

Reference and further reading

For more detail on selective perception, biased representation
and the (many) related biases,
see my Behavioral-finance glossary
and more specifically the
Selective, perception representation articles.

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M.a.j. / updated : 08 Sept. 2015
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