We never experience the total situation, only parts of it. As stated earlier, through selective attention, we attend to only some stimuli and not to others. The same selectivity means that different people will perceive different things in any event because they are focused on different parts of the information available to them. We focus on the information that has the greatest attraction for us – in either a positive or a negative sense. For example, we see a huge wave approaching as we swim. If we focus on what we fear (drowning) or lack (swimming skills), we will perceive the situation as dangerous. If we focus on what we find enjoyable (challenge), we will perceive the situation as exciting. Thus, our concerns and needs affect our perception.
Other factors affecting perception include: past experience, culture and emotions.
1-Past experience has shaped our understanding of the world and our patterns of thought and behaviour. Experience has taught us to see how to perceive certain situations, what to expect from others or ourselves, and how to behave in different situations. For example, if most of our classroom experiences have been humiliating or unpleasant, we may enter a new classroom ready to fight and defend ourselves, or to be afraid.
2-Culture inclines us to view some behaviours as positive and others as negative. For instance, if our culture teaches us that eye contact demonstrates openness and honesty, we will perceive people who avoid eye contact as having something to hide. In cultures where direct eye contact is considered rude or aggressive, indirect eye contact will be approved of, and perceived as polite. The problem is that because our cultural values and expectations surround us, we may believe that they are the only right ones, or the best ones. We may assume that they are normal and should be shared by everyone.
3-Emotions affect our perceptions, for we may view events through the lens of strong emotions. The fear of a man who is robbed may cause him to perceive the criminals as bigger, meaner and more violent than they actually were. A man’s attraction to a woman or vice versa may cause them to perceive qualities in the other person that are just not there.