Perception, Psychological Factors that Influence Perception in Mass Communication

Perception, Psychological Factors that Influence Perception in Mass Communication

Q.5:Define perception and identify some psychological factors that influence perception. Also highlight the role of perception in mass communication.


Perception, Psychological Factors that Influence Perception in Mass Communication


Much of the research showing that perception is influenced by assumptions has come from a group of researchers working at one time or another at Princeton University. These researchers, who have included Adelbert Ames, Jr., Hadley Cantril, Edward Engels, Albert Hastorf, William H. Ittelson, Franklin p. Kilpatrick, and Hans Tech, have presented what has been called the transactional view of perception. The concept is abstract and somewhat philosophical, but essentially it means that both the perceiver and the world are active participants in an act of perception (Tech & MacLean, 1962).

The transactional thinkers have developed a number of convincing demon­strations that perception is based on assumptions. One of the most striking, invented by Adelbert Ames, Jr., is called the monocular distorted room. This room is constructed so that the rear wall is a trapezoid, with the vertical distance up and down the left edge of the wall longer than the vertical distance up and down the right edge of the wall. The rear wall is positioned at an angle so that the left edge is farther back than the right edge. This angle is carefully selected so that the room will appear to be an ordinary rectangular room to an observer looking through a small hole at the front of the room. If two people walk into the room and stand in the rear corners, something interesting happens. The one on the right appears to a viewer looking through the hole to be very large because he or she is closer to the viewer and fills most of the distance from the floor to the ceiling. The one on the left appears to be very small because he or she is farther away and fills less of the distance from the floor to the ceiling. This illusion occurs because the mind of the viewer is assuming that the rear wall is parallel to the front wall of the room. This assumption is based on prior experience with other rooms that looked similar. The illusion is so strong that if the two people in the corners switch places, one will appear to grow larger and the other will appear to get smaller, right before the viewer’s eye.

Psychological Factors that Influence Perception:

Cultural Expectations and Perception

Some of the most striking evidence for the influence of cultural expectations on perception comes from research on binocular rivalry (Bagby, 1957). It is possible to construct a device that has two eyepieces like a pair of binoculars, but can be used to present a different picture to each eye. When this is done, people seldom see both pictures. They more often see one picture and not the other or one picture and then the other. Sometimes they see a mixture of some elements of each picture, but this usually occurs after seeing one picture alone first. Bagby used this instrument to investigate the effect of cultural background on perception.

Subjects were 12 Americans (6 males and 6 females) and 12 Mexicans (6 males and 6 females). Except for one matched pair made up of a person from each country, the subjects had not traveled outside their own country. Bagby prepared ten pairs of photographic slides, each pair containing a picture from the American culture and a picture from the Mexican culture. One pair, for instance, showed a baseball scene and a bullfight scene. Subjects were exposed to each slide for 60 seconds and asked to describe what they saw. The assignment of the Mexican or the American picture to the left or right eye was randomized to eliminatethe effect of eye dominance. The first 15 seconds of viewing for each slide were scored for which scene was dominant—the Mexican or

TABLE :Perceptual predominance in 10 pairs of pictures for Mexican and American subjects

Trials Where

  Trials Where Americana Total Number
  Mexicans Dominated Dominated of Trials
Mexican males (6) 44 16 60
Mexican females (6) 45 15 60
American males (6) 7 53 60
American females (6) 12 48 60

source From J. W. Baby, “A Cross-cultural Study of Perceptual Predominance in Binocular Rivalry,” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 54 (1957): 333. Copyright © 1957 by the American Psychological Association, Reprinted by permission, the American. Dominance was determined by the scene that was reported first or was reported as showing up for the longest period of time. The results (Table 4.1) indicate a strong tendency for subjects to see the scenes from their own culture rather than the scenes from an unfamiliar culture.

Motivation and Perception:

One of a number of experiments that shows the effect of motivation on percep­tion was done by McClelland and Atkinson (1948). The type of motivation being investigated was hunger. Subjects were Navy men waiting for admission to a submarine training school. One group had gone 16 hours without food, a second 4 hours without food, and the third 1 hour without food. All subjects were told they were participating in a test of their ability to respond to visual stimulation at very low levels. The men went through 12 trials in which a picture was supposedly projected, but actually nothing was projected at all. To make this realistic, during the instructions they were shown a picture of a car and then the illumination was turned down until the car was only faintly visible. In some of the trials subjects were given clues such as: “Three objects on a table. What are they?”

The results (Table 4.2) showed that the frequency of food-related responses increased reliably as the hours of food deprivation increased. Furthermore, in another phase of the experiment food-related objects were judged larger than neutral objects by hungry subjects but not by subjects who had recently eaten.


Mood and Perception:

An experiment using hypnosis demonstrated that mood has an effect on percep­tion. Leuba and Lucas (1945) hypnotized subjects, suggested to them that they were experiencing a certain mood, and then asked them to tell what they saw

in a picture. Each subject was put in a happy mood and then shown six pictures. Then the subject was told to forget the pictures and what had been said about them and was put in a critical mood and again shown the same six pictures. Finally, the subject was given the same treatment once more except that the suggested mood was anxious. The descriptions of the pictures were drastically different depending on the mood the person was in. They differed not only in the train of thought the pictures suggested but also in the details noticed.

One picture showed some young people digging in a swampy area. Here is one subject’s description of that picture while in a happy mood:

It looks like fun; reminds me of summer. That’s what life is for; working out in the open, really living—digging in the dirt, planting, watching things grow.

Here is the same subject describing the same picture while in a critical mood:

Pretty horrible land. There ought to be something more useful for kids of that age to do instead of digging in that stuff. It’s filthy and dirty and good for nothing.

Here is the same subject describing the same picture while in an anxious mood:

They’re going to get hurt or cut. There should be someone older there who knows what to do in case of an accident. I wonder how deep the water is.

Attitude and Perception:

The effects of attitude on perception were documented in a study of perception of a football game by Hastorf and Cantrii (1954). The 1951 football clash between Dartmouth and Princeton was an exciting and controversial one. Princeton’s star player Dick Kazmaier was taken out of the game in the second quarter with a broken nose. In the third quarter, a Dartmouth player received a broken leg. Discussion of the game continued for weeks, with editorials in the two campus newspapers charging the other school with rough play. Hastorf and Cantrii took advantage of this situation to conduct a study in perception. They showed a film of the game to two groups: two fraternities at Dartmouth and two undergraduate clubs at Princeton. Students from both schools saw about the same number of infractions by the Princeton team. But Princeton students saw an average of 9.8 infractions by the Dartmouth team, while Dartmouth students saw an average of 4.3 infractions by the Dartmouth team. That is, the Princeton students saw more than twice as many violations by the Dartmouth team as did the Dartmouth students. Hastorf and Cantrii state, “It seems clear that the ‘game’ actually was many different games and that each version of the events that transpired was just as ‘real’ to a particular person as other versions were to other people” (p. 132).





So far this discussion of research has shown that perception in general is influenced by assumptions (often unconscious), cultural expectations, needs, moods, and attitudes. The same kinds of forces are at work when people respond to mass communication messages, as the following cases show.

U.S. Army TV Spots:

Mass media messages are often misunderstood. Keck and Mueller (1994) con ducted a study of U.S. Army television commercials to see whether viewers were perceiving the intended messages, and if not, what messages they were perceiving.

The study focused on two 30-second TV spots. One spot, titled “Dear Dad,” was intended to show that Army service builds personal growth, maturation, and character development, and to portray the Army as exciting, adventurous, and challenging. The second spot, titled “Basic Excellence,” portrayed basic training as a means to discover one’s ability and to overcome personal fears and inhibi­tions. The target audience for the ads was white males between 18 and 24 years of age.

A group of 396 respondents drawn from the target audience was then shown the spots and asked to fill out a questionnaire. Results showed that some of the intended messages were being perceived by the audience. For instance, 61 percent of the respondents agreed that the activities portrayed in “Basic Excellence” were exciting and challenging. Also, 68 percent agreed that a senseof personal accomplishment could be gained from engaging in the activities highlighted in the spot.

But large percentages also perceived unintended messages. For instance, 39 percent perceived that the drill sergeant was not portrayed realistically in the advertisement. And 66 percent perceived that engaging in the activities portrayed in the commercial would not lead to a good job.

There were also systematic relationships between misperceiving the ads and various characteristics of the audience. For instance, 54 percent of the black respondents felt that the drill sergeant in “Basic Excellence” was accurately portrayed, while only 26 percent of the white respondents and 32 percent of the Hispanic and Asian respondents felt that he was.

In addition, 84 percent of those with no college education thought that “Dear Dad” was a true representation of life in the Army, while only 27 percent of those with some college and 9 percent of the college grads felt that it was.

Antiprejudice Cartoons

Satire is a familiar journalistic device. It has been used in works ranging from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels to Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” comic strip. But how is satire perceived?

The American Jewish Committee was interested in studying the effects of satire in reducing prejudice. It sponsored a study by Eunice Cooper and Marie Jahoda (1947) that investigated the effects of antiprejudice cartoons. The cartoons featured an exaggerated figure named “Mr. Biggott,” who appeared in situations designed to make prejudice appear ridiculous. For instance, one cartoon showed Mr. Biggott lying in a hospital bed and dying. He is saying to the doctor, “In case I should need a transfusion, doctor, I want to make certain I don’t get anything but blue, sixth-generation American blood!” The intention was that people looking at the cartoon would see how ridiculous prejudice is and would lessen their own feelings of prejudice.

Cooper and Jahoda tested the cartoons on 160 white, non-Jewish working- class men. About two-thirds of the sample misunderstood the cartoons. Some said the purpose of the cartoons was to legitimize prejudice. These people explained that the cartoons showed that other people had attitudes of prejudice, so the viewer should feel free to have those attitudes also. The cartoons were most likely to be understood by respondents low in prejudice and most likely to be misunderstood by respondents high in prejudice. Cooper and Jahoda suggested that fear of disapproval by a social group was one of the factors leading to this evasion of propaganda. They argued that accepting the antipreju­dice message threatened the individual’s security in groups the individual valued.

This study suggests that making fun of prejudice is not an effective way of reducing it. People tend to view satiric cartoons differently, depending on their own attitudes. Both prejudiced and unprejudiced people tended to see elements in the cartoons that confirmed their existing attitudes.


The mass media frequently employ pictures as part of messages. What do we know about how people interpret these pictures? Scott (1994) has argued that we need a theory of visual rhetoric to help us understand how people process pictures, and has offered some thoughts to move us forward in developing such a theory.

Scott suggests that much research on images in advertising has dealt with pictures either as transparent representations of reality or as conveyors of an emotional appeal. She argues for a third possibility—that pictures can act as symbols and can be used to construct rhetorical arguments. She states that visual elements are capable of representing concepts, abstractions, actions, metaphors, and modifiers, and that they can be assembled into complex arguments. Further­more, this conceptualization of images means that pictures need to be processed cognitively like other forms of information.

Scott’s article brings out three ways of thinking about pictures in the mass media—as transparent representations of reality, as conveyors of affective or emotional appeal, and as complex combinations of symbols put together to make up rhetorical arguments. Different types of pictures in the mass media may be used in these three ways to varying degrees. For instance, news photos may be higher in use as transparent representations of reality than pictures in advertisements, while pictures in advertisements may be used as parts of rhetorical arguments more than news photos. Both types of images may be at times high in conveying affective or emotional appeal (see Table 4.3).

To illustrate the rhetorical use of visual images, Scott analyzes a Clinique ad that shows tubes of lipstick and makeup immersed in a glass of soda water garnished with a slice of lime.

The image is not intended to be taken literally—the message is not that the lipstick and makeup tubes are waterproof, for instance. Scott says we can restate the message of the image in verbal terms in this way “Clinique’s new summer line of makeup is as refreshing as a tall glass of soda with a twist.” The ad is essentially a visual simile. It is an example of a visual trope, an argument presented in a figurative form in order to break through a viewer’s skepticism, boredom, or resistance.

Perceiving the Clinique ad correctly requires some rather complex informa­tion processing on the part of the perceiver. The viewer must compare two rather dissimilar things—soda water and cosmetics—and deduce what they have in common. Of several things they have in common, the correct one must be selected (“refreshing” but not “tasteless”) in order to arrive at the simile.

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