Perception from the Top Down (Consumer Understanding #8)

Mar 17 2011

To perceive is to act

Perception is all about action. What we perceive is not just based on input from our senses, but also based on our expectations in a specific context or situation.  Our senses work very well, but our brain integrates, interpolates and interferes with the information coming from the senses to fit the data to pre-existing models of what it thinks should happen (based on a vast databank of previous experiences).  For example, our brain expects that two towers going up into the sky away from us should converge following the laws of perspective, and when they don’t (as above) this can cause unintended effects in how we perceive the world.

We learn in two ways.  Firstly, by trial and error, just as scientists develop and test hypotheses, we reach out and touch things, push them, manipulate them and above all learn about the order of events (with our sense of time) to understand the causes and effects in the world.  The second way we learn is through our imagination, by using counterfactual thinking to explore alternative scenarios and build mental models of future possibilities (something that adults sadly become much less adept at as they grow older).

From the top down

Although our senses provide the bottom up information to help us identify objects and events, our brain is constantly trying to second guess what will happen next (remember that shortcuts are energy efficient!).  In many of the brain’s feedback systems there is higher information flow back to the senses from our perceptual system than there is from the source.  Incoming data is simply checked against the memory bank for relevant similar experiences, which are then used to frame the interpretation of new data.  So expectations play the leading role in how we experience the world.

For example, in the last post we talked about the role of our sense of touch and how feedback from different parts of the body’s skin covering are mapped in the brain.  When we touch something it influences our other perceptions, so sitting someone in a softer, more comfortable chair makes them softer in negotiations, and handing them a warm drink makes them warmer towards an interview candidate (we will talk more about sensory integration in the next article).

Any information that our brain has (especially when it comes first), is used to frame expectations, and that includes brands, names, prices, source and other people (remember our discussions of framing and social influences).  That’s why wine costing $100 tastes so much better than wine costing $10 (even when it’s the same wine)!  Dan Ariely shares many compelling examples in Predictably Irrational, including the impact of vinegar on the taste of beer (it tastes better until you know it’s there), and of the price of energy drinks on mental tests (we are faster and more accurate when the drink costs more).

Context provides the mental frame of reference for the memories we check and how we interpret events.  That’s why A and B look so different in the optical illusion below (even though they are the same colour).

Vision dominates again

Our brain’s most trusted source of information is visual perception (with good reason - on the savannah it was always way ahead of the other senses). That’s why most visual illusions work, and how magicians manipulate our expectations.  For example, in the McGurk effect, our lip reading skills distort how we hear sounds, and why adding red colour to white wine can even fool wine experts into tasting a ‘well rounded and full bodied’ drink!

In fact our brain uses very little of the incoming data stream to make predictions.  Potentially there are millions of pieces of information per second coming from our senses, but by some estimates we can consciously process about 40 per second.  So our brains have to filter and take shortcuts, which is why we can interpret a line with very little of the line to see (I’m sure you see a triangle below, but how much evidence do you have that it’s there?).

The gorilla in the room

This filtering is the basis of the ‘invisible gorilla’ trick (check it out on Youtube before you continue reading if you haven’t seen it).  Our brain has to focus on what is important to the goal in hand, and therefore ignores most of everything else that is happening.  In the invisible gorilla experiment, eye tracking has shown that our eye is looking in the right place, but this makes no difference to whether we spot the gorilla, which depends on where our ‘mind’ is paying attention.  [Which is one reason to be very careful when interpreting the results of eye tracking studies].

However, the most important lesson of all is not that our brain filters out information, but it also makes it up!  There is a blind spot in the middle of our eyes (where the nerve fibres go back and into the brain’s sensory system) where there are simply no receptors.  This means that we cannot see in one (quite central) area of our visual field.  So how do we know what’s there?  Firstly, our eyes are constantly jumping from place to place to make sure we have a more complete picture (our vision is actually quite narrowly focused and very blurred in the periphery).  More importantly, our brain interpolates and ‘fills in’ the missing gap based on what we see around that hole.  Our perception is truly a virtual reality system!

It’s all about managing expectations

In summary, our mind integrates the senses, interpolates the gaps, and interferes with sensory feedback where it thinks it already knows the answer. Context is the key driver of our perceptual processes, shaping our expectations and informing our interpretation of events. Although our senses work from the bottom up, our map of the world is driven from the top down.

For marketing and market research, if we don’t manage expectations our customers and participants will provide their own.  Providing the right context is as important as providing the right stimulus and asking the right questions.

If you would like to know more about this topic, join one of our training programs here.


The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love and the Meaning of Life by Alison Gopnik (2010)

On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins (2004)

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely (2008)

The Invisible Gorilla: And other ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons

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