Selective perception

What do you see in the picture?

Selective perception, Image Source: Gert Jan Hofstede, Exploring Culture, Intercultural Press 2002
Image Source: Gert Jan Hofstede, Exploring Culture, Intercultural Press 2002

Think first, and then compare with the following possible interpretations:

  • Two women go for a walk when a man hits one of the women with a piece of wood.
  • A woman walks aside to let a blind man pass.
  • A beggar and a woman.
  • Gardening.
  • A farmer’s family working in the field.
  • Two people helping each other to do something.
  • A man digs a hole and a woman throws seeds into it.

All these answers are possible and therefore correct, depending on the viewer’s point of view.

The truth about reality

  •     But why do we perceive situations differently?
  •     Why are there misunderstandings?

Because we perceive selectively!

Through selective perception one often only sees what one wants to see.

Descartes already said: „What Peter says about Paul says more about Peter than about Paul“. Everyone perceives the world in their own subjective way, in excerpts, distortions, shifts, enlargements, etc.. Only through our interpretation do the data of the environment become information.

The basis for selective perception is our ability to recognize patterns or the constant (mostly unconscious) search for patterns. With the help of these patterns, our brain is better able to integrate new information into the already existing ones, in order to be able to cope with the flood of information that is invading us.

Selection of perceptions

The patterns most likely to be perceived are those whose complexity lies somewhere in the middle between perfect symmetry and absolutely unstructured noise. The ticking of a clock, as an example of symmetry, is as little perceived as the unstructured drumming of rain on the window pane, as it is not immediately injured or impaired.


The choice of perceived sensations is influenced by various filters in which experiences, expectations, attitudes and interests play an important role. On a meta-level one can distinguish three filters that influence our perception.


Our education and our experiences in family and school shape our ideas and values, our behaviour, our way of thinking and perception. Everything seems so natural to us that we are no longer fully aware of it. Our social environment therefore shapes our convictions, theories, ideologies, prejudices, goals, interests and basic assumptions.

As an example: When an architect, a gardener and a historian walk through a city and then chat about what they have seen, they will not have much in common to talk about, because each of them has paid attention to different things.

Our expectations also play a major role in selective perception, acting like templates. Anyone who has read bad reviews of a hotel on the Internet will notice negative details more than someone who arrives with a fundamentally positive attitude.


Our feelings are one of the central influencing factors in the perception process. We judge actions of sympathetic persons much more positively than actions of unsympathetic persons.

Another example is the feeling of being in love. The pattern of „pink glasses“ makes our environment appear in an idealized picture (especially the „target person“).

However, strong feelings such as fear or nervousness can also have a functional effect in the sense of a sharpening of senses (perception of danger) or a dulling effect in the sense of a distortion of perception (paralyzing fear of being unable to react).

There are also individual differences, which can manifest themselves in the need to sleep or the feeling of hunger. Anyone with a growling stomach, for example, who strolls through a city with magnificent monuments will also be culturally interested and will be looking mainly for restaurants.


In principle, arguments that support one’s own point of view are more likely to be perceived than those that oppose it. If, for example, you have the basic attitude that big cities are always polluted, you will notice even the smallest pieces of paper on the street, while you have no view for beautifully laid out green areas or cleanly swept sidewalks.


Thirdly, our perception also depends on the context, on the situation. If we chat with a good acquaintance, we behave differently than if we give a lecture in front of a hundred people.

The nature of a room (colours, lighting, sounds, cosiness, seating arrangements, etc.) has just as many effects as age and gender, social role, organisational structure and culture, power structures, pressure of expectation, etc. The same is true for the way in which we interact. All these factors influence our perception.

Use the perception filters for the right amount of concentration!

Advantages and disadvantages

Selective perception is always oriented towards the conscious or unconscious goal of the person acting. We always focus our perception on stimuli that serve to achieve our goal.

If, for example, we are travelling in a car with an almost empty tank, we no longer perceive the surroundings, but rather signs for petrol stations. In such cases, selective perception is a very meaningful device of our brain, in order to be able to distinguish between the essential and the insignificant despite constant stimulus flooding.

But the more one concentrates on one thing, the easier it is for attention to be drawn to things that are also of great – or even greater – importance. Let us stick to the example of driving a car.

Those who turn their attention to street names because they are looking for a particular lane quickly overlook a pedestrian crossing the street on the crosswalk. In fact, drivers who were involved in an accident have already reported that they did not even notice the other car – the filter of selective perception works so strongly.

Use in Practice

Focusing on the right things on the one hand and not too much on certain things on the other hand can be trained. Three things are necessary for the further development of one’s perceptive faculties and readiness.


The knowledge alone that one can never perceive the environment objectively, but always only subjectively, is already the first step in the direction of expanding perception. By closely observing one’s own behaviour, one can become aware of one’s individual patterns for filtering perception.

Ask yourself the following questions again and again:

  • What do I pay concrete attention to at the moment?
  • Do I concentrate too much on certain facts?
  • Do I notice things in my (immediate) environment well enough or do I completely ignore some things?
  • Am I possibly influenced by prejudices, bad experiences or strong feelings?


After reading this article, you will know how and why filtering processes work and what typical risks they entail. Now that you have identified your individual patterns of perception and become aware of them, you also know the rules according to which your own filtering process is structured.

If you know the principles of your very specific selective perception, you can already counteract it a bit. The recommendation of modern psychology thus ultimately returns to the wisdom of the ancient Greeks: „Gnothi seauthon – Know Yourself“.


This brings us to the third and final step of the process. It is necessary to discard your „ego-centredness“ with all your fears, vulnerabilities, prejudices, experiences (at least in part) and to become open to new aspects and perspectives.

Those who do not constantly let the events around them pass through their usual filters suddenly perceive the world differently and sometimes learn to better understand their fellow human beings and their environment.