Social Perceptions and Misperceptions

Scott Plous

Personal notes from lectures of Week 1: Social Perceptions and Misperceptions
(These are personal summaries and paraphrasing of some of the major points of the lectures that I felt to be important. They are not meant to be comprehensive records nor intended to be reproductions of copyright materials. Social Psychology is the most fun course I have had on Coursera so far, and all the concepts mentioned below are presented in lectures with brilliant illustrative examples and experiments.)

Our perception of the world, and our psychological construction of reality, is powerfully influenced by where our attention in directed, by context, by past experiences, expectations, and many other psychological factors. 

Change blindness: Changes in visual field are not noticed while our attention is focused elsewhere. These may include significant changes, such as while paying attention to a video of a card trick and eyes focused on the card, we may not notice that magician's clothes have changed, or the background has changed, etc.

Our visual perceptions are a combination what is out there and what is going on within our visual system. Our visual systems have certain in-built predispositions and tendencies that lead them to process social information in very particular ways.

A confirmation bias is a preference for information that's consistent with, or confirms, a preconception we already hold, and to disregard the information that challenges it. Even when the counter-evidence is noticed, the tendency is to explain it away.

Our social perceptions and social expectations have a significant affect on the person about whom the expectations are held. Our expectations can lead people to behave in ways that confirm our expectations. This is a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Consider the security dilemma. For example, North Korea believes that South Korea is aggressive, and under that belief starts arms. South Korea perceives the armament as an act of aggression, and begins arming in defense. This is interpreted by North Korea as a confirmation of their belief that South Korea is in fact aggressive. 

Another type of self-fulfilling prophecy is Pygmalion effect, which is the phenomenon in which the greater the expectation placed upon people, the better they perform.

Behavioral confirmation takes place when people's social expectations lead them to act in a way that causes others to confirm these expectations. The behavior that is induced in people as a result of these expectations linger on even when the person holding that expectation is no longer physically present.

While social perception can be distorted by a number of factors, however, it can also operate with surprising efficiency. Thin-slicing is a term used to describe the ability to make accurate judgements based only on "thin slices," i.e. brief observations or small samples of behavior. Social judgments can be made with surprising speed and accuracy, even when they're based on just a single photo or the sound of somebody's voice, or a few brief video clips of behavior. 

Even in direct encounters, social impressions are formed with great rapidity, even if the encounter is to last a long time. The first few seconds of interaction between strangers is often the most important time for the creation of social judgment, and will have significant consequences on how their future interaction will develop. First impressions are hard to over-come, especially if they are bad.