The Perception Process: What makes you perceive what you perceive

by Terri Reddout

Do you see the horse in this picture?  If you can’t well, you’re dumb.

It’s a picture of a horse.  Trust me.  All you have to do is turn your head to the right and you’ll see it.  See.  See how dumb you were?

Okay, I know you’re not dumb.  You just didn’t perceive the picture the same way I did.  That’s the tricky thing about perception.

To say someone’s perception is wrong is just plain wrong. Each of us perceive things differently.  Our perceptions influence which truths we see.  Understanding how we form our perceptions can help us better understand how we communication and how people communicate with us.

Each of us pick up on different things that create our perceptions.  It’s called the perception process.

The Perception Process: 3 steps to create a perception: Select, organize, interpret.  Let’s take it step by step.

Selection: The first step is selecting a stimulus

Our five sense are on the job, all the time.  All. The. Time.  Our sense pick up on hundreds of sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures every minute of every day.


  • Our eyes can distinguish over 7.5 million shades of color
  • Our sense of smell can detect over 5000 different odors
  • Our tongue can differentiate over 10,000 tastes
  • Our ears can hear between 20 to 20,000 cycles per second
  • Our touch can detect something as small as a 3-8 milliliter separation

Fortunately, we don’t pay attention to all this input all the time.  If we did, it would drive us crazy.

Let’s put it to the test.  Close your eyes.  Listen.  I bet you hear something you didn’t hear before.  (When I do this in class I generally point out the sound of the over-head projector.  Generally, people don’t hear it until I bring it to their attention.)d

What causes us to pay attention to what our senses are sensing?  (Other than your instructor pointing a noise out to you?)  Well, it is based on repetition, intensity or if we are in the process of changing.

  • The more you hear, see, smell, taste or touch something, the more you’re going to be aware of it.
  • The intensity of the sense will also draw our attention.  If I were to yell you’d more likely pay attention to me than if I were to whisper.  But if I whispered “You just won $13 million dollars,” you’d be more likely to pay attention to me than if I whispered, “Please pass the salt.”
  • When we are the process of changing we pay attention to certain stimuli.  I recently bought a new car.  I really wanted to replace my old Ford Explorer Sport Trac with another Ford Explorer Sport Trac.  As I went from car lot to car lot I kept seeing Sport Tracs on the road, never in the car lots, only on the road. It drove me crazy.  I ended up buying a Ford Edge.  Now all I see on the road are Ford Edges.

Organizing: We organize the stimuli that grabs our attention based on our experience, background, culture, age and a lot of other stuff.

Yup, that’s me holding “Ricky” raccoon.  Several years ago I became an adoptive “mom” to two raccoons.  My brother found them when running a backhoe on his property. They were so young their eyes were still closed.  We bottle fed them for months on a mixture of kitten formula and baby rice cereal.

The raccoons used to ride around in the back of the pick-up with my brother’s two dogs.  Once, Don took the dogs and the raccoons to the beach.  He, his friends, the dogs and the raccoons all walked along the dunes.  People stopped them along the way shouting “Are those raccoons? Can we take a picture?”  Honestly, if we had a nickle for every time someone took a picture of the raccoons I’d be vacationing in the Bahamas right now.

The best story has to be when my brother filled up his truck at the gas station.  An RV pulled up and a bare chested guy jumped out and walked in toward the store.  Suddenly he stopped and pointed to one of the raccoon’s heads sticking out of my brother’s pick-up canopy.  “Is that a raccoon?”  My brother said, “Yes.  And look at this.”  He pulled back the canopy window and the second raccoon stuck his head out.  The guy looked at Don and said “Hold on., hold on, hold on.

He ran back to the RV and out stumbled seven other guys.  My brother realized it was a mobile bachelor party when he spotted the blow-up sex doll in the RV’s back window.

They took pictures of my brother and the raccoons.  Then my brother offered to take pictures of them with the raccoons.  Ten minutes later they all headed back to the RV except one guy, the groom-to-be.  He handed the raccoon back to my brother and said “This bachelor party has been on the road for three days and I have to tell you, these raccoons are the highlight of the entire trip.”

My perception of raccoons wasn’t always like this.  Before I became a raccoon mama this is how I organized all raccoon stimuli:



But my adoptive raccoon mom experience changed my perception of raccoons. BTW- That’s my brother, Don, in the middle.





Interpreting:  How you organize the stimuli will determine your perception

Prior to my raccoon experience I perceived raccoons as nasty little creatures.  Now, whenever I see a raccoon I smile and think about all my raccoon-related memories. My perception of raccoons has changed.  And…maybe… because I provided you with a new stimuli (my raccoon mama stories) your perception of raccoons may have changed a little bit.

Let’s put it to the test, again.

Beautiful picture, right?  But can you see the woman in the picture?

Can’t see it yet?  Don’t worry.  Let me give you a new stimuli.









I turned everything black and white, except the woman at the base of the tree.  She’s sitting on the ground with her head facing away. Her right arm is bent at the elbow and resting on her lap.  Leaves cover her outstretched legs.

Here’s a closer look.





So what’s the lesson here?

  • We need to be aware of the stimuli we put “out there” when we speak or through our non-verbals.
  • How might people be organizing the stimuli we’re putting “out there”?
  • Before jumping to a perception, analyze what stimuli you are reacting to and how are you organizing it?
  • What other stimuli are you over looking that might change your perception?  Are there other ways you might organize that stimuli?
  • Learn how to “Perception Check.”  We’ll learn about that next.


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