We form perceptions of people and situations constantly—so often, in fact, that we’re sometimes unaware that we’re doing it. We can improve our perceptual abilities, however, only when we’re mindful of our perceptions. In other words, we must be aware of what our perceptions are and how they might be affected by our own characteristics and the characteristics of the people we’re perceiving and of the context in which we’re perceiving them.
How can several people observe the same event and form different, even contradictory, perceptions of it? As we’ve seen in this chapter, the reason is that our individual characteristics often shape the way we perceive people and situations. One part of being mindful of your perceptions, therefore, is to ask yourself how they are influenced by your personal attributes.
For instance, how might your perception of Dmitri and Min’s situation be affected by your sex? Perhaps you identify more with Min if you’re female because you are projecting how you would feel in the same situation. Likewise, you might identify more with Dmitri if you’re male. In the same vein, your cultural values and expectations might also influence your perception of the situation. If you grew up in a low power-distance culture that values equality and workers’ rights, you might be predisposed to perceive that Dmitri is abusing his power and victimizing Min. Conversely, if you were raised in a high-power-distance culture that values hierarchy and discourages the questioning of authority, you might be more likely to perceive that Min is overreacting and needlessly causing problems. Remember that your physiological states and traits can also shape your perceptions.
If you were tired or hungry when you overheard Dmitri and Min’s exchange, for example, you might have felt short-tempered and been more likely than usual to rush to judgment one way or the other. That could lead you to select, organize, and interpret only those clues that support your initial perception and to ignore any information that does not.
Your experiences with previous jobs could also bias your perceptions of Dmitri and Min by creating a perceptual set. Let’s say that one of your closest friends at your last job was the victim of harassment. Noticing the pain and frustration she went through may have sensitized you to instances of harassment, leading you to “see” a situation as an example of harassment because that’s what you expect to see. Now let’s take the opposite approach and imagine that your friend was wrongfully accused of harassment by a disgruntled employee. That experience might sensitize you to “see” even legitimate victims of harassment as simply vindictive and dishonest, because that’s what you expect to see. In either case, your experiences would have created a perceptual set that shaped the perceptions you formed.