Perceptual Set Explained

Nathan Mahr, Ryan Hultzman
  • Author
    Nathan Mahr

    Nathan has taught English literature, business, social sciences, history, and writing for over five years. He has a B.A. in Comparative History of Ideas from the University of Washington.

  • Instructor
    Ryan Hultzman
Learn about perceptual sets in psychology. See examples of perceptual experience and thinking, and learn what factors can influence perceptual sets. Updated: 03/10/2022

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Perceptual Set

What is perceptual set? The perceptual set definition is "a predisposition to perceive or notice some aspects of the available sensory data and ignore others." In other words, it's a cognitive bias that affects the way people interpret things based on their expectations and past experiences. These expectations and experiences cause people to notice some details while ignoring others. There are many factors that influence perceptual sets such as motivations, culture, past experiences, peers, and beliefs and expectations. This process of determining which information should be retained and which can be omitted is referred to as a perceptual screen. This lesson will take a closer look at this phenomenon and some examples of perceptual set in action.


Perceptual set creates the filter that defines how people see the world

Two Hands Painted With Map of Earth


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  • 0:04 What Is Perception?
  • 0:40 Perceptual Set Defined
  • 1:34 Selector and Interpreter
  • 2:21 Examples of Perceptual Set
  • 3:59 Lesson Summary
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Perceptual Set Examples

To properly understand perceptual set, it is important to first discuss perception. Perception refers to the unique way individuals view and interpret the world around them. It is influenced by previous experiences, beliefs, and motivations. Perception is the process of taking in information through the senses and making sense of it. This happens automatically and without any conscious effort on an individual's part. The brain receives information from the world around it through the senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. If five people all listen to the same piece of music, they might each have a different perception of it. One person might find the music to be sad, while another person might find it to be happy. This is because everyone's variety of past experiences, beliefs, and feelings each play a role in filtering their perceptions.

Perceptual set theory refers to the notion of perception as a top-down process. Top-down processing happens when the brain sends signals to the sensory system as It receives new information. Using an individual's perceptual set and perceptual screen along with their senses, their brain can make informed decisions without analyzing every aspect of the situation.

A simple example of perceptual set would be if researchers asked ten participants to describe the same bouquet of flowers. The participants would likely give ten different descriptions, even though they would all be looking at the same flowers. This is because each person would have a unique perceptual set based on their past experiences, beliefs, and feelings. Some people may describe the color of the flowers, others might speak about the scent, and the final group may describe a memory that the flowers remind them of. This would be an example of perceptual differences. Perceptual differences occur when individuals are exposed to the same stimuli and perceive them in different ways.


Different people describe things differently due to our own unique perceptual sets

Colorful Flower Bouquet


One of the most famous kinds of studies related to perceptual set is an ambiguous figures study. In this kind of study, participants are shown a series of ambiguous figures, which are images that can be interpreted in more than one way. For example, one famous ambiguous figures study utilized a hand-drawn image that could be seen as either a duck or a rabbit. The results of the study have shown that people tend to see the image in accordance with their expectations. If they expect to see a duck, they are more likely to see a duck. If they expect to see a rabbit, they are more likely to see a rabbit. In addition, participants will see one animal more if they have had more experience with it. This shows that perceptual set can influence the way people see things, even when those things are ambiguous.


Some people see a duck and others see a rabbit

Duck or Rabbit Illusion


Another example of perceptual set in action is the Muller-Lyer illusion. In this illusion, the two lines appear to be different lengths, even though they are actually the same length. The reason for this is that perceptual set causes people to interpret the lines in accordance with their expectations. They expect the line with the arrows pointed inward to be longer than the line with arrows pointed outward, so they see them as being different lengths.


The line with inward-facing arrows appears longer than the line with outward-facing arrows

Müller-Lyer line length Illusion


One place where perceptual set can be seen at work is in marketing. When a company releases a new product, they often use marketing to create a certain perception of the product in consumers' minds. For example, shoe manufacturers use marketing tactics to create the perception that their sneakers are high quality and will make you run faster. These marketing tactics work through manipulating people's perceptual sets related to their beliefs, culture and motivations.

When it comes to perceptual set, companies have two options. They can try to change the consumer's perceptual set, or they can work with it. An example of working with a consumer's perceptual set would be if a company released a new type of toothpaste that was specifically for people who have sensitive teeth. The company would likely use marketing to target people who have this perceptual set. This is because they know that these people are looking for a toothpaste that will help them with their sensitive teeth and this would provide the consumers a positive perceptual experience with the brand.

Forces of Influence on Perceptual Sets

There are many forces of influence on perceptual sets. As mentioned before, past experiences are a major factor. The more experience people have with something, the easier it is for them to recognize it. This is why experts tend to be better at recognizing patterns and details than non-experts.

Culture is another major influence in which perceptual set is shaped. People's cultural backgrounds dictate the things they expect to see and how they interpret them. For example, in some cultures it is considered rude to stare at someone, while in other cultures it is considered impolite to avert your gaze.

The people around us also play a role in shaping perceptual sets. If the peer group people associate with have a certain expectation, they are likely to adopt that expectation as well. This was well explored in the Asch Conformity Experiments.

Motivations tend to influence the development of perceptual sets as well. If individuals are motivated to see something in a certain way, they are more likely to see it that way. For example, if they want to believe that a new product is effective, they are more likely to see it as being effective.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is perceptual set theory?

Perceptual set theory refers to the notion of perception as a top-down process. Top-down processing happens when the brain sends signals to the sensory system as it receives new information.

What is an example of a perceptual set?

Perceptual sets cause us to pay attention to the details we think are most relevant and ignore the elements we feel are irrelevant. For instance, a student whose parents value education will likely work harder on assignments than those whose parents don't consider education necessary.

What is perceptual set influenced by?

Many things influence an individual's perceptual set. Past experiences play a significant role along with motivations, expectations, cultures, and beliefs; all impact our unique perceptual sets.

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