Perceptual Styles

Interpretation Is In the Eye of the Beholder

The selective consumer engages with content based on more personalized psychological factors that can predispose them to seeing things in a certain way.

In our last article we covered the basics of selective attention: the process behind consumers attending to or ignoring certain advertisements, specifically their visual elements. In the journey towards answering why consumers pay attention to certain details more than others, we also introduced the power of the personalized message, and how targeted campaigns can elicit more consumer engagement. Attention is not merely paid to ads that are super sensational, the selective consumer selectively engages with content based on more personalized psychological factors that can predispose them to seeing things in a certain way. In psychology, this is called a perceptual set. 

  • A perceptual set is a mental framework built of past experiences, beliefs, the context of the current experience, emotions, expectations, and motivations that influence a person’s interpretation of a stimulus. 

Perceptual sets were introduced in 1955 by psychologist Floyd Henry Allport to describe how people are perceptually biased. Attention becomes directed towards more personally relevant stimuli than others. Sets narrow down the field of options and are a more streamlined way of processing information (Rookes and Wilson, 2000). It is incredible that sets influence perceptions: stimuli congruent with sets are enhanced while ones that are contradictory are dulled. Let’s take a closer look at how these psychological factors frame experience. 

Set Factors 

  • Expectations can be primed. A perceptual set study from the 1960s demonstrated that people could be primed to interpret information in their visual field. Bugelski and Alampay showed one set of subjects a picture of an animal (e.g., a dog) while the other group saw a picture of people (e.g., a woman). Then, subjects were shown the famous ‘ratman’ ambiguous picture, which could look like a rat or a man depending on perspective. The researchers found that subjects primed to see an animal would pick the rat, and subjects primed to see a person would pick the man, showing that expectations could be primed for Gestalt perception in an all or none fashion (Bugelski and Alampay, 1961). As shown in the ‘ratman’ experiment, perceptual sets can be instilled in a task specific manner based on the instructions given. In a less direct sense, initial information serves as a metaphorical anchor for people to latch onto, further influencing their behavior. It’s more than a parlor trick, this simple idea of priming lies behind the polarizing effects of social media: headlines prime people to think a certain way and bias them towards a specific interpretation (Ecker et. al., 2014). 

  • Life experiences create different perspectives of similar stimuli. For example, a person who grows up rich might look at money as a tool for growing wealth, or something to be kept in the family. Maybe they have so much money, that it’s just not that important at all; part of the lifestyle. On the other hand, someone who grows up without money may view it as a form of security. Even though they don’t have as much money as the wealthier person, it holds more survival value. These differences in life experience can reflect in personality, and demonstrate how perceptual sets affect perception. For example, since the affluent person tends to associate money with lifestyle, they would respond better to ads that target luxurious products, while the person short of money would respond better to ads that target essentials and necessities. In short, the wealthy person might look at money and think of a car, while the person short on cash might look at money and see a month’s food and rent. Another factor in life experiences are expectations shaped by generational differences. An experiment on demographics and perceived video quality showed that younger participants were more critical of video quality compared to their elders (Jumisko-Pyykkö et. al., 2008). This is a sensible finding, considering that the younger groups had more experience with technology, and thus greater expectations. 

  • Context shapes perception too. Our cultures dictate what is appropriate to do or think in a given context while individual interpretation can align or diverge from the cultural framework. For example, prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, the modern globalized economy favored domestic and international air travel almost unanimously. Opinions changed after the pandemic, however. One airline received a record amount of complaints in 2021 for promoting air travel, despite the uncertainty of the outcomes of the vaccine at the time the ad aired (Makoni, 2021). Indeed, the ‘jab and go’ campaign struck a wrong chord with many because it neglected reality. While there were probably many people who were excited about the prospect of traveling again, many more were upset that people would risk their health and others for such individualized gains. The context (in this case a global pandemic), shifted a portion of our society’s views from self-centric to we-centric, which was not the norm before the pandemic. In turn, many perceived the pro-travel ad to be inappropriate. 

  • Emotion is perhaps the most complex factor in coloring a person’s experiences. When it comes to perceptual sets, emotions can override just about anything. For example, emotions can impact perception of space: when viewing a hill through happy or sad eyes, the hill appears steeper when a person is sad (Riener et. al., 2011). In terms of advertising, it’s an uphill battle attempting to predict what emotions a person brings to the table before viewing an ad. People’s emotions vary individually, with time of day, weather, life history, and any series of events can alter emotions significantly. However, ads can be crafted and further tweaked to elicit certain emotions from people. Humans are hypersensitive to social information, therefore crafting an ad to have emotional appeals, preferably following the traditional narrative arc, creates more emotional engagement. It takes more than attention to engage an audience, they need to be emotionally invested. 

  • Motivation, or one’s needs and goals at the moment of perception, is a powerful driver of experience. A classic projective psychology experiment by Sanford instructed subjects to respond to ambiguous stimuli either before or after eating a meal. Sanford used an adaptation of the word association test to capture food responses, or any responses that were related to food (e.g., eat). Sanford also utilized a modified TAT, using ambiguous pictures, to probe how often people would provide food responses either before or after a meal. The results showed that people who had not eaten provided more food responses in both projective tests (Sanford, 1936). Just like emotion, motivations can color our perceptions. Hungry eyes see more food than full stomachs.

Interpretative Ad Design

Perceptual sets are made up of several factors that guide perception and experience. Designing advertisements that appeal to perceptual sets can differ based on demographics, psychographics, and even life experiences. Without the right tools, creating a roadmap for a consumer’s perceptual sets can be a complex mess. Inkblot’s Perceivable Thresholds provides an all-in-one solution for designing ads that capture the eyes of the beholder.


Allport, F. H. (1955). Theories of perception and the concept of structure. New York: Jon Wiley and Sons.

BUGELSKI, B. R., & ALAMPAY, D. A. (1961). The role of frequency in developing perceptual sets. Canadian Journal of Psychology, 15, 205.

Ecker, U. K. H., Lewandowsky, S., Chang, E. P., & Pillai, R. (2014). The effects of subtle misinformation in news headlines. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 20(4), 323–335.

Jumisko-Pyykkö, S., & Häkkinen, J. (2008). Profiles of the evaluators: impact of psychographic variables on the consumer-oriented quality assessment of mobile television. Electronic Imaging.

Makoni, A. (2021). ‘Jab and go’ most complained about TV advert last year. Evening Standard. 

Reiner, C., Stefanucci, J., Proffitt, D., Clore, G. (2011). An effect of mood on the perception of geographical slant. Cogn Emot. 2011 Jan; 25(1):174-82.

Rookes, R., Wilson, J. (2000). Perception: Theory, Development and Organisation. Routledge modular psychology. Psychology Printing Press. 

Sanford, R. N. (1936). The effects of abstinence from food upon imaginal processes: a preliminary experiment. The Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied, 2, 129–136.

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