Selective Perception: A Comprehensive Analysis

Selective Perception

The selective perception theory is that we will ignore stimuli that do not align with our existing beliefs or attitudes to focus on the ones that do. Selective perception is not inherently a bad practice, but over-reliance on it can lead to cognitive dissonance and a warped understanding of reality.

When we are in situations that cause emotional discomfort or stress, we may begin to ignore certain stimuli or external factors that normally influence how we react. Suddenly we choose to forget the crying baby in the other room to focus on finishing our work, or we end up completely ignoring the color of the book we received for our test. Ignoring certain stimuli and focusing on the ones we want to or need to encounter is known as selective perception.

This article will focus on the idea of selective perception, the factors influencing selective perception, and how the concept is defined and studied within psychology. It will also give some examples of selective perception in the real world to help us better understand the concept. The article will also outline the ways that selective perception can both protect and harm us and how to watch out for and engage with an over-reliance on the tactic.

Finally, we will briefly discuss how selective perception may influence the way that we participate in conflict resolution and some tips for how to engage a person caught in selective attention.

Defining Selective Perception

Selective perception psychology is a process through which we encounter, analyze, and sort through stimuli we may notice during our daily routine. As we sort through the stimuli, we take in those that create meaningful experiences and ignore or reject the ones that could cause us harm. It is a way that we protect our brains from overwhelm and potentially harmful encounters. By doing so, we can remember the aspects of a moment that fit within our pre-existing beliefs or values.

This process is usually an unconscious look at the things happening around us and only takes in what we need; however, it can also be done consciously. It is also called selective attention, selective exposure, and selective recall, although all of these names tend to refer to a specific portion of the process.

Selective Attention

Selective attention refers to the way that we pay attention to the things going on around us and which of the stimuli we choose to focus on, or what gets our attention. This is usually done unconsciously as we enter a room or situation and is often there to stop us from experiencing emotional discomfort. We filter stimuli every moment of the day.

Selective Exposure

Selective exposure is the practice of searching out and reading or using sources and research that confirms or supports pre-existing beliefs or prior experiences. When we focus only on supporting our prior beliefs and ignoring opposing viewpoints, we tend to ignore many other important sources of information. These types of selective perceptions are most commonly seen in media and news stations.

Selective Recall

Selective recall is the way that we remember what we have encountered. Many people perceive fear as a more memorable stimulus than some of the more pleasant emotions, which is why many people will experience an overabundance of fear recall. This can happen in the reverse. For example, we tend to try and fit our partners within our expectations and will often have a cognitive distortion about how they treat us, ignoring the bad memories.

Selective Perception Psychology and the Selective Perception Theory

The psychology and theory of selective perception center on the idea that our brains create filters for the external stimuli that we encounter and that we subconsciously use these filters to create a digestible memory or experience for ourselves. We use two types of filters to create this safe environment for ourselves, perceptual defense and perceptual vigilance.

Perceptual Vigilance

Perceptual vigilance is the process of noticing and paying attention to the stimuli around you that you find entertaining or delightful. You seek to perceive only that which will make the experience memorable in some way. For example, when we decide that we want or need a new car, we tend to notice the advertisements and car sales lots in everyday life. We tend to seek out the perceptions that fit our needs. This can cause perceptual distortions because we will believe that these stimuli are everywhere.

Perceptual Defense

Conversely, we also seek to filter out or ignore the stimuli that do not serve our purpose or affect us in a way that we do not like. In some cases, we will create perceptual distortions of the things we are observing to make them more palatable. For example, a person passing you while you are on a walk may not have any ill intent; however, because they are moving quickly toward you, your brain may believe to attribute ill will to them and seek to escape the situation. You will only perceive the danger, you will likely not experience it.

Creating Factors that Influence Selective Perception

The creation and use of factors that influence our perceptions are based on our past experiences and existing attitudes, beliefs, and behavior. By observing the world around us, we create expectations for the process we use to interpret information. People screen millions of stimuli a day and we have to create factors to have the ability to interact with each one as they are perceived.

There are two theories in selective perception psychology of how we create and use these factors, the Posner Theory and the La Berge Model, but both outline a similar process. First, a stimulus grabs our attention because it matches one category of stimuli that matches our desires. Second, we evaluate the stimulus and examine the evidence and elements that make it up. Finally, we determine whether we would like to keep this stimulus if it contributes to meaningful experiences or whether we would like to disengage with it and move on to another.

Selective Perception Examples

Let’s consider some examples of selective perception to better understand how and when we perceive events, words, characteristics, and behavior selectively. Understanding when this comes into play will help us be aware of when we are causing harm by filtering out certain stimuli.

One of the most common examples of selective perception in recent years has been the tendency we have developed to consume only media that aligns with our beliefs. We base this on the knowledge that we have acquired from this media, but this is often based on biased or deceptive practices. It creates a perceived superiority of our team and often a disdain for the opposing team.

This may cause us to tune out when we hear people using certain words or when we perceive characteristics as antagonistic to our values. This can happen within any side of the political spectrum and is often done more consciously than other forms of selective perception.

Another example of selective perception is the color word test. In this test, the participant will be presented with the names of colors written out in various color ink and told to find either the ones written in a specific color of ink or the ones that spell out a specific color. While completing this test, the participants will have to select which of the aspects they will need to pay attention to, the color of the ink or the word it spells. This test can be incredibly difficult if you cannot focus solely on one category of stimuli.

Placebo Effect

Finally, the placebo effect is a common example of selective perception. Because we believe that going to the doctor or taking medication will make us feel better, we align our behavior with our expectations and will only perceive the ways that the medication or the doctor’s visit is helping. Selective perception can help us feel better, even if we are still experiencing symptoms because we are more aware of the feelings that match our desires.

The Good and Bad Traits of Selective Perception

As mentioned several times, selective perception has both a good and a bad side to the process. Selective perception theory holds that it gives us the ability to filter through the stimuli that we encounter, but occasionally we need to notice a different one that gets ignored or we need to pass over one that we dwell on.


Selective perception plays a key role in helping us notice and define meaningful experiences and events that help us move toward our goals when it is functioning well. Because it allows us to focus on certain stimuli, it gives us the ability to focus, be productive, and meet expectations. It also gives us the ability to ignore the things that do not serve us, especially those that could continue to harm our mental health if we give them the opportunity. It helps us align our needs with the world around us.


Selective perception also has some disadvantages. By ignoring certain stimuli around us, we can begin to see the world around us with a biased worldview that could cause harm. Additionally, selective perception can cause us to dwell on aspects of our experiences that can heighten uncomfortable feelings and lead to further mental health struggles.

Additionally, when someone with a tendency to use selective perception is doing research, there is a risk that selective perception contributes to bias within the research and can lead to either a fundamental attribution error or confirmation bias, both of which can undermine the research.

Conflict Resolution and Selective Perception

In addition to the other aspects of selective perception that we have covered, selective perceptions can also play a role in conflict resolution. For example, when in conflict, a person may choose to ignore a disagreement that they had with another person, or they may overinflate the use of one emotion because they cannot process what is going on. This can cause any communication to break down and stall the process of resolution further. Perception will play a large role in conflict, so it is important to understand it and have a plan for when it shows up.

Final Thoughts

Selective perception is a natural process through which we filter the stimuli that we encounter. It can be helpful to keep us on task and limit harmful influences. However, it can also contribute to confirmation bias and further isolate us from the things we need to encounter. Understanding what selective perception is and how we interact with it will allow us to use the power it holds without threatening our safety or sanity.

To learn more about selective perception, conflict resolution, and more, contact ADR Times today!

Emily Holland
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