Perceptual Styles

What Are Perceptual Styles?

An attitude or style refers to a person’s consistent, preferred method of interaction with the world.

An attitude or style refers to a person’s consistent, preferred method of interaction with the world. Within the psychological realm, there are attitudes and styles that operate at perceptual and cognitive levels, defining an individual’s behaviors, thoughts, motivations, and needs.

Perception is the key that unlocks the door to a person’s unique worldview. Leonardo Davinci once wrote that everything we know can be traced back to our perceptions of the world. The  process begins with the in take of information from the external world (i.e., perceptual field) through our senses: sight, touch, smell, taste, and hearing. The world is ripe with sensory information. In fact, there’s so much information available that the brain developed mechanisms to select what is important—and filter what is not—to avoid overload. As a result, what we actually see is a composite of the important details. 

The Gatekeeper 

Located near the brainstem in one of the oldest, most conserved parts of the brain lies the reticular activating system (RAS). The RAS serves many functions, including the regulation of the sleep-wake cycle, supplying the cortex with energy, and most important for the scope of this article, habituation. Habituation is the process where the brain learns to ignore repetitive, unimportant stimuli while remaining sensitive to salient, novel inputs (Garcia, 2016). In order for information to reach the brain and enter perception, it must pass through the filter of the RAS. The prefrontal cortex—sometimes called the conductor—can influence the RAS. The prefrontal cortex enables a form of selective attention that maintains focus while minimizing distractions. It can also exert top-down control, integrating memory and executive function into the perceptual process. The result is a higher order form of cognition that leads to the modification and transformation of information. Therefore a proper cognitive system focuses on the organization of personality and its function in terms of the characteristic ways that people perceive, remember, think, and behave. 

Additionally, our cultures also play a critical role in what we determine to be important, and consequently what we pay attention to and what we ignore. These patterns of attention, selection, and transformation of information shape the world as we see it in our mind’s eye. 

Perceptual Attitudes 

German neurologist and psychiatrist Kurt Goldstein proposed abstract-concrete attitudes to describe a personality’s capacity to express a certain attitude towards a situation or inner experience. The concepts were formed in the clinic while studying pathology, using the Sorting Test, and were not derived statistically. A person with a concrete attitude is attuned to the situation entirely, lacking robust conscious, deliberate awareness. Their attitude is often rigid and prone to distraction, a force “thrust” upon the individual by means of the stimulus (Goldstein and Scheerer, 1941, p. 3). On the other hand, a person with an abstract attitude is able to untie the impression of the stimulus and create categorical hierarchies (i.e., understand the whole, break it down, and then incorporate the parts), think symbolically, shift attention from one task to another, and take on a willful, conscious mental state. A healthy person should be able to deploy both attitudes in a practical manner, however when they become disorganized a pathology forms (Goldstein and Scheerer, 1941). Goldstein detailed the abstract attitude as a higher level form of functioning that, if disabled, unearths an automatic and forced (i.e., concrete) attitude. In short, a disorder of abstract thinking can lead to a change in personality. While the idea of executive functioning or higher-order thought is often tied to modern cognitive science, it is clear that precedence for such concepts belong to neuropsychology. 

The relationship between higher and lower level brain functioning is directly related to the perceptual process. Traditionally, there are two systems that govern information processing in the human brain: bottom-up and top-down. When we gather information from the external environment and form perceptions based on raw sensory demands through integration, processing is bottom-down. If experience and expectations (i.e., prefrontal cortex) shape raw perceptions to transform information, processing is top-down. These concepts have direct ties to the type of perceptual attitudes that individuals have. 

Types of Perceptual Attitudes 

A perceptual attitude is a “personal outlook on the world” (Klein, 1951, p. 331). Perceptual attitudes are those available to a person for deployment as a mode of operation in a situation. Accordingly, many researchers were interested in testing whether or not  perception could be indicative of personality. 

American psychologist George Klein detailed three types of perceptual attitudes that contribute to a two system theory of cognitive functioning: physiognomic-literal, leveling-sharpening, and instability tolerance-resistance

The physiognomic-literal dimension explains the degree that people project emotional or expressive properties into an object. Physiognomic perceivers anthropomorphize objects, while literal perceivers stick to the facts. As Klein wrote, the former have a preference for the “dynamic and emotive” while the latter prefer the “static and literal” (Klein, 1951, p. 345). Two of the most common examples of physiognomic perceivers are a) seeing a candle’s flame as “dancing”, and b) ascribing emotional valence to colors (e.g., blue is trusting, red is exciting). Again we can draw back to bottom-up and top-down modes of processing to understand perception. If experience and expectations shape perceptions, processing is a top-down, as seen in physiognomic perceptual attitudes. If the senses gather information from internal and external environments and form perceptions in a bottom-up manner, processing is bottom-down, as seen in literal perceptual attitudes. The most fascinating reduction from this dichotomy was the idea that a physiognomic attitude was a “precondition of empathic experience” (Klein, 1951, p. 347). 

Levelers and sharpeners were another important perceptual attitude addressed by Klein alongside Holzman. The two researchers tested subjects with a new creation, the Schematizing Test, which involved making judgments about the size of squares in a series. The squares were equal in size initially, however some were slowly replaced by a larger square. Levelers and sharpeners approached the squares in strikingly different ways, though the attitudes are not polar opposites or mutually exclusive. 

Levelers tended to focus on the gestalt, or whole, of a stimulus. Their perceptions were organized in a fluid manner. As such, they tended to interpret things in unity, and had difficulty identifying the details and subtle changes in an stimulus. For example, the uniformity in the initial series of squares set the tone for successive changes, resulting in a lack of distinction, or homogeneity of perception. On the other hand, sharpeners focused on the small details, differentiating the various dimensions of a given stimulus. They were likely to amplify small changes and remain highly sensitive to subtlety. Other experiments showed that levelers had difficulty identifying embedded visual stimuli, sharpeners exceled and were highly sensitive to embedded figures (Klein and Holzman, 1954). It should not come as a surprise that these differentiations in perceptual attitudes also produced similar results with regards to color and saturation.

From here, Klein and Holzman identified traits descriptive of each group that were also apparent in patterns of everyday behavior. Levelers were described as inwardly focused; those who avoided competition, self manipulation, and longed for nurture. Sharpeners were described as outwardly focused; those who thrive in competition, strive for success, and have a core need for autonomy (Klein, 1951). 

The final perceptual attitude that Klein presented was instability tolerance-resistance of change in a perceptual field. Klein and Schlesinger began to explore perception and personality through the manipulation of visual experiences. The researchers were interested in understanding how people tolerated the experience of being presented with two distinct images that were at first alternating, then increased at such a speed that they appeared to move as one. This juncture, where the two became one percept, represented a critical point. This range of movement between separate details and integration into a whole allowed the researchers to understand how well subjects can tolerate instability to form, as well as resist instability to form. The concept of “reality testing” underlies the gap between what one knows and how one organizes the perceptual field, just as when the two figures moved as one (Klein and Schlesinger, 1951, p. 290).  

The researchers also implemented a Rorshcach test to further understand the concept. The apparent perception of motion is as a solution to the ambiguity of the inkblot and the prior knowledge that the stimulus is merely an inkblot on flat paper, incapable of movement. Those who can tolerate instability in reality can flow freely through a task, while those who resist are compelled to preserve their reality at all costs, often anchoring to what is known (Klein, 1951). The instability resistant group made more literal interpretations of the blots and expressed less freedom in the selection of content, while clinging to the “sharpness of the form” (Klein and Schlesinger, 1951 p. 297). Therefore they had higher F+ scores, but lower R. On the other hand, the instability tolerant group used more association to create multiple responses using the same area of a given inkblot. The results show that the process in which a person organizes their responses to an inkblot are indicative of the utility of the process behind perception, rather than the content itself. 

A follow up study was conducted over a decade later that included new experimental conditions where the visual field of the subject was distorted by an optical lens. The researchers renamed the construct and tolerance-intolerance to unrealistic experiences, or the unstable. These experiences are unrealistic, or unstable, in the sense that they defy a common sense understanding of the world. In this experiment the researchers aimed to tease out the mechanisms behind the construct. The two found that the tolerant group (T+) had greater freedom from the reality of the card and were able to ‘play’ with it. In addition to this, T+ subjects viewed the task as an opportunity to freely project and create association out of less pronounced features of the inkblot. They also scored higher in other determinants, like color.  The T- group had a different attitude and often expressed dissatisfaction for the task and complained, all the while they stuck to the apparent features of the inkblot, showing distinct preferences for certainty. 

Interestingly, these intolerant subjects felt compelled to verbally express order when describing what they saw. For example, the objects seemed to be “too vague” or “only looked a bit like..” something, as if the subjects felt the need to anchor in reality, despite the fact that they were dealing with predominantly imaginary forms. T- subjects also had minimal color responses. Overall, the researchers concluded that T+ and T- attitudes would appear when people: a) a situation where the instruction is contradictory to the experience, b) a situation that undermines a long standing habit or practice, c) misleading feedback, and d) rapid changes in the contents of awareness (Klein et. al., 1962). 

Perceptual Styles

American psychologist Herman Witkin also began studying individual differences in perception in the 1940s. Alongside colleague Solomon Asch, Witkin created the Rod and Frame Test to measure the degree that individuals use external stimuli when making visual judgments  (Witkin and Asch, 1948). The experiment occurred in a darkened room, where the subject was presented with an adjustable luminous rod and frame. The subjects were instructed to calibrate, or orient, the rod so that it stood vertically, despite the tilt of the frame. Interestingly, some subjects were able to ignore the visual input from the frame (i.e., the field of view) and adjust the rod to a nearly upright position, while others “perceived the tilted frame as upright, and aligned the rod with it” (Witikin and Asch, 1948, p. 781). However, the Rod and Frame Test was not the most efficient way to determine individual differences in visual perception. 

Witkin innovated the Rod and Frame Test and created the Embedded Frame Test. Subjects were shown a complex pattern, and then a simple pattern that was embedded within the complex image. From there, the subject was tasked with delineating the simple pattern within the larger one. Interestingly, some subjects were able to trace the simple object’s pattern, but were unable to “see” it as a separate unit.  (Witkin, 1950, p.11). The results demonstrated that the structure of a given field by itself cannot account for the perceptual process, rather individual differences in perceptual styles, as well as the unique features of the stimulus are determinants in the process too. More critically, Witkin found that these individual differences were stable, which led to the idea that there were patterns of personality functioning related to individual differences in perception. Accordingly, Witkin believed that there were personality differences in perceptual styles, or a person’s organized perceptual functionality. In the book, Personality through perception: an experimental and clinical study, Witkin and colleagues introduced the concept of field dependent and field independent perceptual types (1954). Field dependent types “fuse” parts of the field, and their perceptions are concerned with the organization of the field. As such, their views are influenced by changes in the background. For example, subjects in the Rod and Frame Test who were able to ignore the visual input from the frame and adjust the rod were field independent types, while those who aligned the rod with the frame were field dependent types. Field independent observers relied on bodily impressions, while field dependent observers relied on the visual field. Remarkably, Wiktkin found that these types were stable across individuals over a variety of situations (Witkin et. al., 1977). However, these types were not labeled in terms of distinct types of human beings, but rather as varying degrees in functions of perception. Thus, perceptual styles are malleable and relative, but consistent and distinct. 

A Major Rebrand: Cognitive Styles 

In the book, Psychological differentiation: Studies of development,  Witkin rebranded  perceptual styles as cognitive styles, bringing along the field dependent-independent concepts along with it (Witkin et. al., 1962). This rebrand saw a transition from perceptual styles—the habitual ways that a person attends to, chooses, modifies, and interprets immediate sensory information—towards cognitive styles—the characteristics ways that a person thinks, recalls, and uses symbolic representations to solve problems in an intellectual, or thoughtful, manner. If perceptual styles were organizational, then cognitive styles were intellectual. 

Witkin expanded on the field dependent-independent construct and introduced the articulated-global cognitive style in the article, Psychological differentiation and forms of pathology. Articulated types, which are manifested via independent field perceptual processes, could distinguish the important facets of a field and experience them separately from the entire field. They could also impose structure onto an ambiguous stimulus, as seen in the Rorschach test. On the other hand, global types, which are manifested via dependent field perceptual processes, are influenced by the organization of the field as a whole. Conceptually, if field dependent and independent types were perceptual styles, articulated and global types were the corresponding cognitive styles. With these ideas came the notion of psychological differentiation, or the degree to which a personality (e.g, cognitive style, body concept) has a developed, specialized sense of self versus others boundaries with regards to the body as well as personal identity. For example, an articulated person would have a distinct and structured sense of the body (i.e., they have a field independent perceptual style) and a highly individualized identity. While a more global person would rely on feedback in the formation of identity. 

Psychologist Riley Gardner researched the concepts of categorization, complexitycognitive control, and scanning, although the concept of cognitive control was pioneered by Klein and his perceptual attitudes. Gardner used an array of tests, including an Object-Sorting Test and a Size-Constancy Test, that revealed whether a person had broader or smaller conceptual categories. The most notable qualitative difference between the two groups was that narrow categorizers were driven to act based on the differences they could identify, while those with broad categorizers took a more relaxed approach. He noted that this difference was not due to a lack of awareness of subtleties, but rather a preferred tolerance of differences (Gardner, 1953). Thus broad categorizers used their feelings and projection more when reality testing, while small categorizers used the external world and its identifiable features. These differences in knowing the world are indicative of personality differences. Harvard researcher Thomas Pettigrew introduced the idea of categorical width, or range, which were proposed to be complementary to the concepts of leveling-sharpening and tolerance-resistance to instability. Pettigrew noted that broad categorizers stand the risk of making Type I errors, where they identify something significant that is not actually there, as when they group many things together that may in fact be distinct. On the other hand, narrower categorizers stand the risk of making Type II errors, where they neglect to identify something important, like that some of their narrow categories could be combined (Pettigrew, 1958). 

Moving beyond categories, Gardner wished to understand the complexity behind people’s knowledge of categories, or their concepts. A person’s conceptual differentiation could range from simple-complex. A complex approach is accompanied by exponential distinctions; more and more associations between groups (Gardner and Schoen, 1962). Then Kagan, Moss, and Sigel identified three additional types of conceptual styles. A descriptive approach focuses on the important physical, objective features (i.e., color, form) of an object to label it, while ignoring what is irrelevant. The relational-contextual approach anchors a person to the situation and the functional relationship between the object. This differs from the descriptive approach in that the stimuli are all grouped together as salient, thus there is no perceptual background to discriminate from: everything is connected. For example, this concept relates to Rapaport’s preposition that a person’s belongings, such as their car, are an extension of their personal identity. The third approach was labeled categorical-inferential because classification stems from inferred knowledge, instead of objective features (Kagan et. al., 1963). 

Distractibility, a form of cognitive control, was measured through responses to contradictory stimuli, such as the classic Stroop Test. In short, it measured how well subjects could ignore relevant stimuli and attend to important ones. Yet again, the relationship between the prefrontal cortex and the RAS proffers a deep understanding of this cognitive function, showing how a person can adapt and modify their perceptual filter to solve problems. Subjects with constricted control were more prone to distraction, while flexible control subjects were better able to proceed with the task at hand (Gardner et. al., 1959). Then, using the Size Estimation Test, Gardner and colleagues proposed two types of scanners. Scanning involves the concentrated use of attention to select information, which directly impacts personal experiences and decision-making. Extensive scanners utilized more information than the limited scanner when sampling information prior to forming a response (Kozhevnikov 2007).

American psychologist Leon Festinger introduced the foundation of cognitive consistency with his theory of cognitive dissonance, which was the degree that contradictory information creates discomfort in the mind of a perceiver (Festinger, 1957). Festinger believed that the presence of dissonance would motivate a person to reduce the state and avoid situations and information that antagonize the dissonance. Thus, there is a theoretical consistency for people to achieve between their thoughts, beliefs, perceptions, and everyday actions.  

The book, Conceptual systems and personality organization, saw Harvey, Hunt, and Schroeder propose that different people demand different, optimal environments. The researchers created a divided line of abstract-concrete thinkers that indicated cognitive integration (Schroeder et. al., 1961). This measured how well a person related concepts to one another and integrated them with prior knowledge. These conceptual structures were measured using the Sentence Completion Test. System I, concrete thinkers, operate in terms of black and white; their cognitive style dominated by a given structure and heavily influenced by instruction. As such, concrete thinkers would display greater habitual categorial concepts (Schroeder et. al., 1961). System II & III thinkers have a balance of both characteristics, with a style that leans more toward the closest extreme. System IV, abstract thinkers are highly differentiated, and turn inwards to solve problems. 

And by 1963 Harvard researcher Jerome Kagan had coined the reflection-impulsivity, or conceptual tempo, a cognitive style. Conceptual tempo relies on the idea that people have an inherent tendency to either approach instinctive solutions or consider alternate possibilities when faced with uncertainty (Kagan et. al., 1963). In short, conceptual tempo is concerned with the formulation of hypotheses, speed of information processing, and the overall accuracy of judgments. The researchers tested the concept by observing how children approached a series of tests, including a Matching Familiar Figures Test and a Word Recognition Test. Children who made quick decisions took an impulsive approach, while those who had more deliberate thought, comparing more options, took a reflective approach. The results showed that children with a more reflective approach were more successful in recognizing words, and took more time when matching familiar figures. Additional research on this construct found that impulsive children could be classified as limited scanners, while reflective children could be classified as extensive scanners (Drake, 1970). 

In 1966 psychologist Julian Rotter introduced the locus of control. Rotter argued that the degree that a person perceives a situation as either a result of their direct behavior—internal locus of control—or a result of chance and luck—external locus of control—determines whether or not the situation is rewarding or reinforcing (Rotter, 1966). This process is a critical determinant of the learning process. Reinforcement strengthens the expectation that a condition or behavior will occur again in the future. For example, if you ring a bell before dinner each night, your family will come to expect that the ring of the bell means that it is time to eat. The bell is the reinforcement. On the other hand, if you were to serve dinner after each person completed a particular chore, the dinner would act as a reward to the tasked behavior. Ringing the bell for dinner demands an external locus of control, while serving the eaters after they service the house demands an internal locus of control. In short, the locus of control is a personal belief in an individual’s influence of life outcomes. For example, someone with an internal locus of control—when faced with a problem—would attribute any successes to their own abilities and any failures to a lack of effort. Conversely, someone with an external locus of control would attribute any success to luck and failure to bias. 

I’m an advertiser, how can I use these styles?

There’s clearly an abundance of perceptual attitudes, styles, and cognitive styles. If you’re creative or observant enough, you’ve probably even identified a few of your own. The ability to apply them to a situation is extremely valuable when designing an advertisement. In our next article we will discuss how advertisers can use consumer psychological profiles of these styles to create more actionable, impactful, and impressionable content.

The term ‘cognitive styles’ was in circulation before Witkin used it; see Gardner 1953. This concept of cognitive styles is often interchangeably used with the term learning style, however the latter is more aptly defined as a person’s preferred behavioral, cognitive, emotional, and perceptual methods for interacting with a learning environment. The theory of learning styles posits that when an individual is taught to their preferences, their learning experience is optimized. However, this view is highly controversial and widely considered by some camps to be a modern myth.


Drake, D.M. (1970). Perceptual correlates of impulsive and reflective behavior. Developmental Psychology, 202–214.

Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford University Press.

Garcia-Rill, E., Virmani, T., Hyde, J. R., D'Onofrio, S., & Mahaffey, S. (2016). Arousal and the control of perception and movement. Current trends in neurology, 10, 53–64. 

Gardner, R. W. (1953). Cognitive styles in categorizing behavior. Journal of Personality, 22, 214–233.

Gardner, R. W., Holzman, P. S., Klein, G. S., Linton, H. B., & Spence, D. P. (1959). Cognitive control. A study of individual consistencies in cognitive behavior. Psychological issues. New York: International Universities Press.

Gardner, R. W., & Schoen, R. A. (1962). Differentiation and abstraction in concept formation. Psychological Monographs: General and Applied, 76(41), 1–21.

Goldstein, K., & Scheerer, M. (1941). Abstract and concrete behavior: an experimental study with special tests. Psychological Monographs, 53(2), i–151

Harvey, O. J., Hunt, D. E., & Schroder, H. M. (1961). Conceptual systems and personality organization. Wiley.

Holzman, P. S., & Klein, G. S. (1954). Cognitive system-principles of leveling and sharpening: Individual differences in assimilation effects in visual time-error. The Journal of Psychology, 37(1), 105-122.

Kagan, J., Moss, H. A., & Sigel, I. E. (1963). Psychological Significance of Styles of Conceptualization. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 28(2), 73–112.

KLEIN, G. S., & SCHLESINGER, H. J. (1951). Perceptual attitudes toward instability. I. Prediction of apparent movement experiences from Rorschach responses. Journal of personality, 19(3), 289–302.

Klein, G. S. (1951). The personal world through perception. In R. R. Blake & G. V. Ramsey (Eds.), Perception: An approach to personality (pp. 328–355). Ronald Press Company.


Kozhevnikov, M. (2007). Cognitive styles in the context of modern psychology: Toward an integrated framework of cognitive style. Psychological Bulletin, 133(3), 464–481. 

Pettigrew, T. F. (1958). The measurement and correlates of category width as a cognitive variable. Journal of Personality, 26, 532–544.

Rotter, J. B. (1966). Generalized expectancies for internal versus external control of reinforcement. Psychological Monographs: General and Applied, 80(1), 1–28.

Witkin, H. A., & Asch, S. E. (1948). Studies in space orientation. IV. Further experiments on perception of the upright with displaced visual fields. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 38(6), 762–782.

WITKIN H. A. (1950). Individual differences in ease of perception of embedded figures. Journal of personality, 19(1), 1–15.

Witkin, H. A., Lewis, H. B., Hertzman, M., Machover, K., Meissner, P. B., & Wapner, S. (1954). Personality through perception: an experimental and clinical study. Harper.

Witkin, H. A., Dyk, R. B., Fattuson, H. F., Goodenough, D. R., & Karp, S. A. (1962). Psychological differentiation: Studies of development. Wiley.

Witkin, H. A. (1965). Psychological differentiation and forms of pathology. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 70(5), 317–336.

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.

Similar posts

Get notified on new psychological insights

Be the first to know about new psychological insights that can help you optimize customer touchpoints and drive business growth.