What is Perception?



Exposure only requires the presence of a stimulus within an individual’s relevant environment. For example, a person is exposed to a commercial (stimulus) if she/he were in the room when the commercial was shown, even when the person paid no attention to it or noticed it.

Sensory receptors are human sense organs (eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin) involved in receiving sensory inputs. Though there are numerous stimuli present in our environment, we are exposed to only an extremely small fraction of them.

We are exposed to a large number of stimuli on a more or less random basis every day, but most of us deliberately seek exposure to selected stimuli in a “self-selected” manner and ignore or avoid others (zapping and muting of TV commercials, or zipping of pre-recorded videotapes are good examples of this stimuli avoidance).

Obviously, we look for information that we consider will help us in some way to accomplish our desired goals.

Absolute Threshold

At this point, an individual can detect a difference between “something” and “nothing” and this point would be that individual’s absolute threshold for that stimulus.

For instance, one individual may sense the sound pitch at 20 cycles per second and the second individual may sense the sound pitch at 30 cycles per second.

The absolute threshold for sound in the case of these two individuals would be different. Many individuals’ ability to discriminate sensory characteristics such as taste, smell, hearing, or feeling is small.

The senses are likely to become increasingly dull under conditions of constant stimulation and the absolute threshold increases.

For example, if someone drives for half an hour through a corridor of billboards, it is doubtful that any particular billboard will register any impression. This is known as ‘adaptation’ and refers to “getting used to” certain sensations.

Differential Threshold

A German scientist of nineteenth-century, Ernst Weber discovered that the just noticeable difference between two stimuli was an amount relative to the intensity of the initial stimulus. To measure the differential threshold for a stimulus, one commonly changes its intensity in very small amounts.

An individual’s threshold exists when she/he first notices that the stimulus has changed. The difference between this value and the starting value is just a noticeable difference.

Weber’s Law (after the name of the scientist) states that the stronger the initial stimulus, the greater the additional intensity needed for the second stimulus to be perceived as different.

For example, if a producer raises the price of its car by four hundred rupees, probably it would not be noticed because the increase would fall below j.n.d. The difference in price may become noticeable if the increase were to be one thousand rupees or more.

To be noticed, an additional level of stimulus equivalent to j.n.d must be added to make the difference perceptible. Likewise, if the reduction in the price of the same car is ₹400, it again is unlikely to be noticed falling below the level of j.n.d.

Subliminal Perception

People can also perceive stimuli, which are below their level of conscious awareness. In this situation, the stimuli which are otherwise too weak or brief to be consciously seen or heard prove strong enough to be perceived.

When the stimulus is below the threshold of awareness and is perceived, the process is called subliminal perception. This shows that the threshold of conscious awareness is higher than the absolute threshold for effective perception.

Subliminal perception became a topic of hot discussion during the late 1950s when it was reported that advertisers could expose consumers to subliminal messages without their being consciously aware of this.

It was believed that such messages could motivate people to buy products or act in ways beneficial to advertisers without really being aware of why they did so. A series of experiments were conducted and the findings were that individuals could perceive below their level of conscious awareness but their purchase behavior was not affected by subliminal perception.

Subliminal research studies are inconclusive as far as the impact of advertising is concerned. Research on subliminal perception seems to be based on two theoretical approaches (1) the effect of constant repetition of very weak stimuli adds up to produce response strength and (2) subliminal stimuli of a sexual nature arouse unconscious sexual motivations.

Research studies have so far failed to indicate that any of these theoretical approaches can be put to effective use in advertising to increase sales.


Human beings are constantly exposed to numerous stimuli every minute of the day. This heavy intensity of stimulation to which we are exposed should serve to confuse us totally but it does not. The reason is that perception is not a function of sensory input alone.

An important principle of perception is that raw sensory input alone does not elicit or explain the coherent picture of the world that most adults possess.

Perception is the outcome of the interaction of physical stimuli from the external environment and an individual’s expectations, motives, and learning based on earlier experiences.

The interaction of these two types of very different stimuli creates, for an individual, a very private and personal picture of the world. Since every individual is unique because of needs, wants, desires, expectations, and experiences, no two people perceive the world precisely the same way.

Perceptual Selection

Human beings, subconsciously, are quite selective in their perception. Every day we look at so many things, ignore others, and do not even notice many others. We really perceive only a very small fraction of stimuli to which we are exposed. In a marketplace, a consumer is exposed to numerous marketing-related stimuli besides numerous others.

Even then, on a regular basis, consumers visit the market and make desired purchases without any disorientation or losing sanity. The reason is that we all unconsciously exercise selectivity in perception.

The selectivity of stimuli depends on the consumer’s previous experience and motives, besides the nature of the stimulus itself. One or more factors related to experience and motives affect a consumer’s ‘selective exposure’ and ‘selective attention’ at a given time and can increase or decrease the probability that a certain stimulus will be perceived.

Selective Exposure

Exposure occurs when consumers’ senses are activated by a stimulus. Consumers are attentive to stimuli that are relevant, pleasant, or towards which they may be sympathetic and ignore unpleasant and painful ones.

For instance, a consumer who is contemplating the purchase of a scanner is more likely to look for scanner ads and tobacco users avoid messages that link it with cancer and take note of those few that deny any relationship.

Similarly, consumers readily expose themselves to ads of products they prefer or admire or ads that reinforce their purchase decisions. For example, a consumer who has bought an expensive Mac computer is more likely to see or read its advertisements to reassure her/his purchase decision.

Selective Attention

Consumers have increased awareness of stimuli that are relevant to their felt needs or interests and decreased awareness of irrelevant stimuli. They would readily notice ads for products that they need or want.

Some consumers are price-sensitive, for some quality is more important and accordingly they pay attention to such ad messages. Consumers use considerable selectivity in terms of the attention they pay to different stimuli.


Because of adaptation, consumers do not notice the stimuli to which they have become adjusted. For instance, an air-conditioned picture theatre feels quite cool in the beginning but a short time later we adapt to temperature and become less aware of it.

Consumers become adapted to advertising messages over time due to boredom or familiarity. They reduce their attention level too frequently repeated advertisements and eventually fail to notice them.

Because of this reason marketers introduce attention-getting features in their ad campaigns and change their advertising.

The level of adaptation varies among consumers and some get adapted more quickly than others.

Perceptual Blocking

Consumers are exposed to innumerable stimuli in a typical day. They protect themselves from being overwhelmed and overburdened by blocking such numerous stimuli from their conscious awareness. For instance, consumers screen out enormous amounts of TV advertising by ‘tuning out’.

Figure and Ground

This is one of the most basic and automatic organizational processes that perceivers use. People have a tendency to organize their perceptions into figure-and-ground relationships. In order to be noticed, stimuli must contrast with their environment.

We notice black against white and do not notice white in white. Similarly, a sound must be louder or softer to be noticed. The figure usually appears well-defined, solid, and perceived more clearly than the ground (background) which is usually perceived as hazy, indefinite, and continuous.

The common line separating the figure and the ground is perceived as belonging to the figure and not to the ground. This gives a greater definition to the figure.

The application of these findings is important in advertising. The ads must be planned carefully to ensure that the figure and ground are perceived the way the advertiser intended. For example, in many print ads, the background is kept white so that the intended product features can be clearly perceived.

Often, white letters are used on a black background to achieve contrast. In the case of commercials, the background music must not detract from the product message or jingle. Advertisers, in some cases, deliberately blur the figure and ground so that consumers search for the advertised product, which is usually cleverly hidden in the ad.


The tendency to group stimuli may result as a consequence of proximity, similarity, or continuity. When an object is associated with another because of its closeness to that object, it is due to proximity. Because of their vertical proximity, the 15 dots are seen as three columns of five dots and not as five rows of three dots.

Advertising often uses this principle by associating a product with positive symbols and imagery close to the product. In the second case (b), consumers group 8 rectangles and 4 circles as three sets because they look similar.

Consumers also group stimuli to attain continuity by grouping stimuli into uninterrupted forms rather than discontinuous patterns (c). The dots in this figure are more likely to be seen as an arrow projecting downward than as two columns of dots. Individuals’ tendency of grouping makes it easier for their memory and recall.


Individuals have a need for closure and fulfill it by organizing their perceptions in a manner that leads to forming a complete picture. In the event that they are exposed to a pattern of stimuli, which in their view is incomplete, they tend to perceive it as complete by filling in the missing pieces.

This phenomenon may be the result of conscious or subconscious efforts. For example, if a portion of a circle is left incomplete, it is mostly perceived as a complete circle and not an arc. Because of this need for closure, individuals experience tension when some task is incomplete and a feeling of satisfaction and relief develops with its completion.

Stages in Perceptual Process

No consumer forms a perception in a single step. Rather, perception is an outcome process consisting of the following parts:

Primitive Categorization

The basic characteristics of a stimulus are isolated by the person to form his perception. Thus, anything shining may be seen with an amount of suspicion by the consumer. This is what is known as primitive categorization. A slight error of judgment on the part of the marketer in not appreciating this may lead to a marketing pitfall.

For instance, sample bottles of Sunlight, a dishwashing liquid in the US market, were mailed to consumers. The liquid contained 10 percent lemon juice. Almost 80 people were treated at poison centers after drinking some of the detergents.

These individuals apparently assumed that the product was actually lemon juice since many of the packaging cues resembled Minute Maid – a popular brand of frozen lemon juice.

Cue Check

The cue characteristics are analyzed by the person in preparation for the selection of a schema. In the context of the sunlight liquid example quoted above the cue check stage in the perceptual process was the pairing of the yellow bottle with a prominent picture of a lemon.

Confirmation Check

Once the schema is selected, a confirmation check is run by the person to see the validity of the schema chosen. In the context of the continuing example of the Sunlight liquid detergent, a juice schema was selected instead of a dishwashing liquid schema.

The confirmatory check was the picture of the lemon. Juice, as found on the leading brand of a reveal lemon juice.

Confirmation Completion

The last and final stage is confirmation completion where a perception is formed by the consumer or any person that matters and the decision is made. The act of drinking the detergent illustrates it. Unfortunately, the consumers found their mistake the hard way.

Sensory System and Perception

A sensory system is a part of the nervous system responsible for processing sensory information.

A sensory system consists of sensory receptors, neural pathways, and parts of the brain involved in sensory perception.

Commonly recognized sensory systems are those for vision, hearing, somatic sensation (touch), taste, and olfaction (smell).


The ear is the organ of hearing. The human ear can perceive frequencies from 16 cycles per second, which is a very deep bass, to 28,000 cycles per second, which is a very high pitch. Bats and dolphins can detect frequencies higher than 100,000 cycles per second.

The human ear can detect pitch changes as small as 3 hundredths of one percent of the original frequency in some frequency ranges. Some people have “perfect pitch”, which is the ability to map a tone precisely on the musical scale without reference to an external standard.

It is estimated that less than one in ten thousand people have perfect pitch, but speakers of tonal languages like Vietnamese and Mandarin show remarkably precise absolute pitch in reading out lists of words because the pitch is an essential feature in conveying the meaning of words in tone languages.

The Eguchi Method teaches perfect pitch to children starting before they are 4 years old. After age 7, the ability to recognize notes does not improve much.


The nose is the organ responsible for the sense of smell. The smell receptors are sensitive to seven types of sensations that can be characterized as camphor, musk, flower, mint, ether, acrid, or putrid. The sense of smell is sometimes temporarily lost when a person has a cold. Dogs have a sense of smell that is many times more sensitive than men.


The eye is the organ of vision. It has a complex structure consisting of a transparent lens that focuses light on the retina. The brain combines the input of our two eyes into a single three-dimensional image.

In addition, even though the image on the retina is upside down because of the focusing action of the lens, the brain compensates and provides the right-side-up perception.

The range of perception of the eye is phenomenal. In the dark, a substance produced by the rod cells increases the sensitivity of the eye so that it is possible to detect very dim light.

In strong light, the iris contracts reducing the size of the aperture that admits light into the eye and a protective obscure substance reduces the exposure of the light-sensitive cells.


The sense of touch is distributed throughout the body. Nerve endings in the skin and other parts of the body transmit sensations to the brain. Some parts of the body have a larger number of nerve endings and, therefore, are more sensitive.

Four kinds of touch sensations can be identified: cold, heat, contact, and pain. Hairs on the skin magnify the sensitivity and act as an early warning system for the body. The fingertips and the sexual organs have the greatest concentration of nerve endings.


The receptors for taste, called taste buds, are situated chiefly in the tongue, but they are also located in the roof of the mouth and near the pharynx. They are able to detect four basic tastes: salty, sweet, bitter, and sour.

The tongue also can detect a sensation called “umami” from taste receptors sensitive to amino acids. Generally, the taste buds close to the tip of the tongue are sensitive to sweet tastes, whereas those in the back of the tongue are sensitive to bitter tastes.

The taste buds on top and on the side of the tongue are sensitive to salty and sour tastes. At the base of each taste bud, there is a nerve that sends the sensations to the brain. The sense of taste functions in coordination with the sense of smell.

The number of taste buds varies substantially from individual to individual, but greater numbers increase sensitivity. Women, in general, have a greater number of taste buds than men.

Consumer’s Risk Perception

Whenever consumers make decisions to purchase any new brands, there is an element of uncertainty about the consequences and a perception of risk is involved in most such purchases. Risk perception can be defined as ‘the consumers’ perceptions of uncertainty that they face when they are unable to foresee various consequences of their purchase decisions’.

The relevant risk dimensions are uncertainty and the consequences. It is worth noting that the influence of risk depends on an individual’s perception. This means that the risk actually may or may not exist and even if a real risk exists but is not perceived, it will not influence consumer behavior.

Several situations may influence the consumer’s perception of uncertainty or consequences. For example, there may be uncertainty regarding buying goals, uncertainty about alternatives, or uncertainty about perceived possible undesirable consequences.

Consumers may face several different types of risks in making purchase decisions. The major ones are:

  • Financial or monetary risk is the risk that the product will not be worth its cost. Expensive products and services are most subject to this risk financial or monetary risk is the risk that the product will not be worth its cost. Expensive products and services are most subject to this risk,

  • Performance risk, is associated with the possibility that the product will not perform as anticipated or may even fail. The consumer wastes time in getting it repaired, or replaced. The risk is greatest when the product is technically complex.

    Example: An expensive computer.

  • Physical risk refers to bodily harm to self and others due to product usage. For example, food and beverages, electrical or mechanical appliances, medical services, etc. can sometimes prove risky.

    When cooking gas (LPG) was first introduced in India, consumers’ physical risk perception about it was high. Similarly, some consumers consider the use of pressure cookers as risky.

  • Social risk, which means that a poor product purchase may not meet the standards of an important reference group and may result in social embarrassment.

    Example: Clothes, jewelry, carpet, or car, etc.

  • Psychological risk relates to loss of self-esteem or self-image as a result of poor choice and making her/him feel stupid.

    Example: High-involvement category products or services.

The degree of risk perception among consumers varies and depends upon the person, product, situation, and culture. Some consumers who are high-risk perceivers or risk avoiders, limit their product choices to a limited number of safe alternatives to avoid risking a poor selection. More often than not, they stay brand loyal to avoid risk.

Consumers who are low-risk perceivers or risk-takers tend to consider their choices from a wider range of available product alternatives. They are prepared to risk poor selection instead of not considering several alternatives from which they can make a selection.

They are more likely to buy new products before they are well established. Risk takers are often higher-income consumers, having upward social mobility and showing personality traits such as the need for achievement, dominance, and change.

  • Leon G. Schiffman and Leslie Lazar Kanuk, (2007), Consumer Behavior, Pearson Education

  • Dr. A Sarangapani, (2009), A Textbook on Rural Consumer Behaviour in India – A Study of FMCGs, Laxmi Publications Ltd.

  • Satish K Batra and S.H.H. Kazmi, (2009), Consumer Behaviour2nd, Excel Books

  • S. Ramesh Kumar, (2009), Consumer Behaviour and Branding: Concepts, Readings and Cases – The Indian Context, Pearson Education

  • http://www.iimrohtak.ac.in/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/JJRC710.pdf

  • https://umu.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:553342/FULLTEXT01.pdf

  • http://www.icpsr.umich.edu/icpsrweb/ICPSR/studies/32453

Leave a Reply