What Is Perception Bias? | Definition & Examples

Perception bias is the tendency to perceive ourselves and our environment in a subjective way. Although we like to think our judgement is impartial, we are, in fact, unconsciously influenced by our assumptions and expectations.

Example: Perception bias
After a few weeks at your new job, you notice that some of your colleagues always go for after-work drinks on Fridays. It’s not an official team event, but each week the same person asks who’s joining and books a table. However, no one ever asks the older colleagues to join, assuming that they won’t be interested.

If left unchecked, perception bias can affect how we evaluate ourselves and others. As a result, we may form inaccurate impressions.This, in turn, can impact the quality of our decision-making.

What is perception bias?

Perception bias is a broad term used to describe different situations in which we perceive inaccuracies in our environment. It is a type of cognitive bias that occurs when we subconsciously form assumptions or draw conclusions based on our beliefs, expectations, or emotions.

Perception bias works like a filter, helping us make sense of all the information we are exposed to in our surroundings. As a result, our perception of reality is often distorted. For example, this can cause us to unfairly label people or make inferences about their abilities on the basis of superficial observations or stereotypes.

Why does perception bias occur?

Perception bias occurs because our perception is selective. Here, perception refers to the process of screening, selecting, organising, and interpreting stimuli, such as words or objects, in order to give them meaning. Our brain chooses to hone in on one or very few stimuli out of the multitude of stimuli surrounding us. This is one way our brains differentiate between important and unimportant things.

Due to this, our perception of a given situation is not a photographic representation of reality. Rather, it is a unique representation, informed by objective information, our prior beliefs and expectations (called cognitive factors), and our hopes, desires, and emotions (called motivational factors). Motivational and cognitive factors are sometimes intertwined, but they can also function separately.

What are different types of perception bias?

There are many types of bias that can influence our perceptions, whether of objects, others, or ourselves. Although there is no exhaustive list, the following are some common types of perception bias:

  • Visual Perception. When we look at something, our brains use the information available (like visual cues or prior experience) to make sense of an object. This means that our visual processing of faces can be biased. For example, a person’s group membership may lead us to view their face as untrustworthy. Negative attitudes and beliefs like outgroup bias can have an effect on our visual perception.
  • Self-perception. People are often biased in their self-perceptions, failing to assess themselves accurately. For example, people may take personal responsibility for successes while denying personal responsibility for failures (self-serving bias), or they may underestimate their performance and abilities, casting themselves in a more negative light (self-effacement bias). When comparing the self to others, people often commit what is known as the false consensus effect, believing that our opinions or behaviours are generalisable to the general population.
  • Social perception. Social perception refers to the impressions we form about others. A common problem with social perception is the tendency to think of people in terms of their social group membership. Although this process is useful in navigating a complex social world, at the same time it often leads to unfair generalisations or stereotypes. For example, a person who believes that men drive better than women is more likely to notice women driving poorly than men driving poorly. The halo effect, affinity bias, and ingroup bias are also forms of social perception bias.

Perception bias examples

Perception bias can cause us to treat our colleagues unfairly in an effort to advance ourselves in the workplace.

Example: Perception bias in the workplace
You are the lead for an important project at work, and your manager asks you to present your progress to the executive board. You spend hours preparing the presentation with your team. After the presentation, your manager congratulates you for your progress and the presentation. In reply, you say ‘I worked really hard on this’, happy to take all the credit. Since you are the project lead, you believe this praise is fair. However, this is not entirely accurate because you worked as a team. This is an example of a type of perception bias called self-enhancement.

Selective perception bias can help explain why individuals with opposing views tend to find the same media coverage to be biased against them.

Example: Selective perception bias and the ‘hostile media effect’
In one study, researchers took a sample of pro-Israeli, pro-Arab, and neutral college students. They asked them to watch the same set of televised news segments covering the Arab-Israeli conflict, broadcast nationally in the United States over a ten-day period.

Researchers found that each side saw the news coverage as biased in favour of the other side.

  • Pro-Arab students thought the news segments were generally biased in favour of Israel.
  • Pro-Israeli students thought the segments were generally biased against Israel.
  • Neutral students gave opinions that fell between the two groups.

They also found that these disagreements were not simply differences of opinion; they were differences in perception. In particular, pro-Arab and pro-Israeli students also differed in their perceptions of the number of favourable and unfavourable references that had been made about Israel during the news program.

  • Pro-Arab students reported that 42 percent of the references to Israel had been favourable, and only 26 percent had been unfavourable.
  • Pro-Israeli students recalled 57 percent of the references to Israel as having been unfavourable and only 16 percent as having been favourable.

The researchers concluded that individuals with strong preexisting attitudes on an issue perceive media coverage as unfairly biased against their side and in favour of their opponents’ point of view. This happens because when people become committed to a particular cause or opinion, their perceptions often change in order to remain consistent with this commitment.

How to reduce perception bias

Although it is not possible to entirely eliminate perception bias, there are ways to reduce it. More specifically, when you make a decision or form an impression of someone, you can ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I have a motive that makes me see things a certain way?
  • What are my expectations from this situation or decision?
  • Have I discussed my thoughts or opinions with people who don’t agree with me?
  • If you find yourself making absolute statements about others, using strong words like ‘always’ or ‘all’, ask yourself how accurate this is, and whether you have evidence to back up your claim.

Other types of research bias

Frequently asked questions about perception bias

What is an everyday life example of perception bias?

A real-life example of perception bias is the false consensus effect. Because we spend most of our time with friends, family, and colleagues who share the same opinions or values we do, we are often misled to believe that the majority of people think or act in ways similar to us. This explains, for instance, why some people take office supplies home: they may genuinely feel that this behavior is more common than it really is.

What is selective perception?

Selective perception is the unconscious process by which people screen, select, and notice objects in their environment. During this process, information tends to be selectively perceived in ways that align with existing attitudes, beliefs, and goals.

Although this allows us to concentrate only on the information that is relevant for us at present, it can also lead to perception bias. For example, while driving, if you become hyper-focused on reaching your exit on a highway, your brain may filter visual stimuli so that you can only focus on things you need to notice in order to exit the highway. However, this can also cause you to miss other things happening around you on the road.

Why is perception bias a problem?

Perception bias is a problem because it prevents us from seeing situations or people objectively. Rather, our expectations, beliefs, or emotions interfere with how we interpret reality. This, in turn, can cause us to misjudge ourselves or others. For example, our prejudices can interfere with whether we perceive people’s faces as friendly or unfriendly.

Cite this Scribbr article

If you want to cite this source, you can copy and paste the citation or click the ‘Cite this Scribbr article’ button to automatically add the citation to our free Reference Generator.

Nikolopoulou, K. (2023, March 06). What Is Perception Bias? | Definition & Examples. Scribbr. Retrieved 14 May 2024, from https://www.scribbr.co.uk/bias-in-research/the-perception-bias/

Is this article helpful?
Kassiani Nikolopoulou

Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex scientific information into easily accessible articles to help students. She specialises in writing about research methods and research bias.