Social perception is the cognitive process that helps us form impressions of those around us. Our learned, perhaps even subconscious attitudes towards other people based on any number of their defining characteristics help to us comprehend a situation and gauge our behavior accordingly. Social perception is the mental process of picking up cues and signals from others that help us form an early idea of what they may be like. Our brains may rely on stereotypes or previous similar experiences to build a picture of what to expect from any given social encounter.
It is a broad area of study that has fascinated academics for millennia. Today, it is of particular interest to a variety of different types of specialists including social scientists, psychologists, philosophers and anthropologists; incorporating as it does elements of cognitive processing, individual and interpersonal behavior, perceptions of groups, and group behavior. Perhaps it could be put no more simply than Person Memory, the title of one volume of essays on the subject. The book, subtitled The Cognitive Basis of Social Perception and edited by Reid Hastie took a mathematical approach to investigating social perception.
The writer Malcolm Gladwell addressed the issue of social perceptions in his 2005 book Blink. He investigated the usefulness of social perception and concluded: "The task of making sense of ourselves and our behavior requires that we acknowledge there can be as much value in the blink of an eye as in months of rational analysis." We can also turn social perception onto ourselves, by absorbing the impressions others might make of us. This concept, known as the Looking Glass Self, considers how our sense of self is shaped by how we believe ourselves to be seen by others.
In terms of human behavior, social perceptions are formed as a combination of experience and expectations of how a person's defining physical or otherwise overriding characteristics will impact on how we imagine that person to be – for example, through their ethnicity, nationality, religion, class or if they are living with a disability. These assumptions are often deep-rooted and formed in childhood. In their often cited study Social Perceptions and Attitudes of Children, Marian Radke, Helen G Trager and Hadassah Davis showed 250 pictures to kindergarten aged children to see how they reacted to different groups. They concluded that the attitudes of very young children towards racial and religious groups different to them tended to be passed down to them from adults in their lives, rather than based on their own experiences. These and many other extensive studies have shown that people are able to involuntarily form an impression, or stereotype, of other people just through milliseconds of exposure, even subliminally, to photographs or film.
Studies into how these impressions of others are formed are called attribution theories. The study of social perceptions can be difficult as by its very nature the concept can be subjective. A well-known example of this is the Halo effect, where a certain characteristic of a person, for example their attractiveness, can affect another person's behavior towards them in a biased way.
Anthropologists regard socialization as the process by which cultures are passed down to each new generation, which in turn supports the usefulness of the information filtered through social perception of groups and cultures. Illustrating this point of view, Ruth Benedict says: "Babies are born with undifferentiated responses and children have to be conditioned to acquire the habits and characteristics which give individuality to their nation; they must learn the particular habits of a particular culture….which adapt new generations to the life of their own community and nation."
The Encyclopedia of Sociology explains that social perception is just one area of the wider subject of human perception, a matter of external signals triggering a response in the brain that may or may not form a conscious awareness. With regards to social perception, it states: "On the basis of perceptions of the personal qualities of others (and perceptions of others' perceptions of those qualities), people make judgments about those qualities (e.g., good or bad); on the basis of those judgments, people formulate intentions about how they will behave toward others (e.g., plan to engage with them or avoid them); on the basis of those intentions, the actions of others, the prevailing context, and so on, people enact their impressions and intentions in social interactions."