Perceptual Styles

It's Not What You See, It's How You See It

When people view content that aligns with their style, they tend to like it more, which leads to action.

When you look up at the sky and focus on the clouds passing by, what do you see? It might be a magnificent horse trotting in a meadow, the skyline of a towering city, or even the face of someone you know. Humans have a special ability to project meaning onto otherwise ambiguous, lifeless stimuli. This effect is called apophenia, and when visually expressed it is called pareidolia. Psychologists have used the contents of our projections to determine the dynamics of personality since the 1940s, but how we see things is often just as important as what content forms. That’s why here at Inkblot, we target 10 perceptual styles that marketers and advertisers can use to build better, more impressionable content that aligns with their consumer’s psychological profiles. And when people view content that aligns with their style, they tend to like it more, which leads to action. 

Form Over Content 

The easiest way to remember the purpose of this principle is through the saying form over content. 

Herman Rorschach, who invented the famed inkblot test, prioritized the manner in which people organized their perceptions of inkblots over the content of their responses. Although content would emerge as an important factor in determining facets of personality, the basis of perception and thus projective mechanisms rely heavily on the ways that people organize percepts. The sensations that we attend to trigger within us emotions, memories, and associations that guide our perceptions. These determinants are telling of the way that someone experiences something, and not necessarily what they experience. 

This is very similar to the linguistic concept of paralanguage, the nonverbal aspects of voice such as prosody, even style and tone (Frank et. al., 2015). It’s not what people say, but how they say it. Rorschach determined that the results of his test based on perception provided vivid insight into how someone experiences visually. His eureka echoed the journalings of the American poet Henry David Thoreau, who once wrote, “the question is not what you look at—but how you look and whether you see,” (1851). At the end of the day, people are going to see all sorts of things when tasked with looking for them. However, the items that they focus on, how they organize them, and the ones that they ignore are telling aspects of their psychology. Within the context of advertising, you can play into these noticables and forgetables by curating content that leaves an impression on consumers. Research shows that people are very stable in their styles of perception over time (Witkin, 1977). 

Additionally, these preferred styles of perception carry over to problem-solving abilities, showing that certain people are built for seeing and dealing with things in particular ways. Everyone has two eyes, but no one sees the same. Targeting individual differences in perception and cognition is a competitive advantage that can make a brand pop out over the rest. 

Frequency Illusion and Missing Information

Have you ever purchased an item, like a pair of fresh Nike shoes, only to notice in the coming days that everyone else seems to be wearing them!? This might sound like a mystery fit for the likes of Sherlock Holmes—who had a keen eye for detail—however it is a problem easily solved by neuroscience. 

This effect is called the frequency illusion, and it is a neuroscientific effect caused by the grand design of the human brain. The brain is equipped with perceptual filters that allow people to focus on what is important and ignore what is not. When you purchase something new, it becomes meaningful to you because it is an extension of your identity (Rapaport, 1942). This identification with material items is a form of projection. As such, you begin to notice the newly purchased item everywhere, even though it was there all along. It is only because you own it that it becomes meaningful. As such, your brain begins to allow it through your perceptual filter, even focusing on it. This can also occur with an item that you desire or loathe. As long as it is important to you, it will show up. And if it’s not, chances are that you will end up ignoring the unimportant information. It's the reason that retargeting ads tend to perform up to ten times better than banner ads—because they take what’s important to you and make it visible. 

Marketing Magic: Making the Invisible Visible 

This logic speaks to the importance of how you see things, and not what you see. Let’s return back to the example of the Nike shoes. Before they caught your attention, the shoes ceased to exist in your mind, despite the fact that people wearing those same shoes passed you by everyday. And you were none the wiser. But after the fact of purchase, the shoes became important to you. So, you began to see them everywhere. In short, the same stimulus (i.e., Nike shoes) generally existed in the external environment in the same frequency that they always did, however it was your perception of them that mattered. Once you owned them, they became important to you. Successful advertisers can persuade millions of people into buying a product by finding what’s important to them, making it visible, and then creating a demand for the item. By appealing to how a person sees—through crafting content that targets their perpetual styles—they can make the invisible visible. Remember, often how you see (i.e, frame) products is what makes them visible, and not what they actually look like.


Frank, M. G., Griffin, D. J., Svetieva, E., & Maroulis, A. (2015). Nonverbal elements of the voice. In A. Kostić & D. Chadee (Eds.), The social psychology of nonverbal communication (pp. 92–113). Palgrave Macmillan.

Rapaport, D. (1942). Principles underlying projective techniques. Character & Personality; A Quarterly for Psychodiagnostic & Allied Studies, 10, 213–219. 

Thoreau, H.D. (1851). Journal 5. Oxford Essential Quotations (5 ed.) Oxford University Press. 

Witkin, H. A., Moore, C. A., Goodenough, D., & Cox, P. W. (1977). Field-Dependent and Field-Independent Cognitive Styles and Their Educational Implications. Review of Educational Research, 47(1), 1–64.

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