We use a number of shortcuts when we judge others. Perceiving and interpreting what others do is burdensome. As a result, individuals develop techniques for making the task more manageable. These techniques are frequently valuable – the allow us to make accurate perceptions rapidly and provide valid data for making predictions. However, they are not foolproof. They can and do get us into trouble. An understanding of these shortcuts can be helpful in reorganizing when they can result in significant distortions.
Selective Perception: Any characteristic that makes a person, object or event stand out will increase the probability that it will be perceived. Because it is impossible for us to assimilate everything we see only certain stimuli can be taken in. This tendency explains why you are more likely to notice cars like your own or why some people may be reprimanded by their boss for dong seeing that when done by another employee goes unnoticed. Because we can’t observe everything going on about us, we engage selective perception. A classic example shows how vested interests can significantly influence which problems we see.
A perceptual study was performed in which 23 business executives read a comprehensive case describing the organization and activities of a steel company. Of the 23 executives, 6 were in sales, 5 in production, 4 in accounting and 8 in miscellaneous functions. Each manager was asked to write down the most important problem he found in the case. Eighty three percent of the sales executives rated sales as important; only 29 percent of the others did so. This, along with other results of the study, led the researchers to conclude that the participants perceived aspects of a situation that were specifically related to the activities and goals of the unit to which they were attached. A group’s perception of organizational activities is selectively altered to align with the vested interest they represent. In other words, when the stimuli are ambiguous, as in the steel company case, perception tends to be influenced more by an individual’s base of interpretation (that is, attitudes, interests, and background) than by the stimulus itself. But how does selectivity work as a shortcut in judging other people? Because we cannot assimilate all that we observe, we take in bits and pieces. But those bits and pieces are not chosen randomly; rather, they are selectively chosen according to our interest, background, experience, and attitudes. Selective perception allows us to “speed read” others, but without the risks of drawing an inaccurate price, because we see what we want to see, we can draw unwarranted conclusions from an ambiguous situation.
Halo Effect: When we draw a general impression about an individual on the basis of a single characteristic, such as intelligence, sociability or appearance, a appearance, a halo effect is operating. This phenomenon frequently occurs when students appraise their classroom instructor. Students may give prominence to a single trait such as enthusiasm and allow their entire evaluation to be tainted by how they judge the instructor on that one trait. Thus, an instructor may be quiet, assured, knowledgeable and highly qualified, but if his or her style lacks zeal, those students would probably give the instructor a low rating.
The reality of the halo effect was confirmed in a classic study in which subjects were given a list of traits such as intelligent, skillful, practical, industrious, determined, and warm and were asked to evaluate the person to whom those traits applied. When those traits were used the person was judged to be wise, humorous, popular and imaginative. When the same list was modified – cold was substituted for warm – a completely different set of perceptions was obtained. Clearly, the subjects were allowing a single trait to influence their overall impression of the person being judged.
The propensity for the halo effect to operate is not random. Research suggest that it is likely to be most extreme when the traits to be perceived are ambiguous in behavioral terms, when the traits have moral overtones and when the perceiver is judging traits with which he or she has had limited experience.