Social perception is a term in social psychology that defines an individual’s ability to create an impression or judgment of other individuals or social groups. This is formed through observation and understanding existing information about an individual and drawing out conclusions from the information. This kind of perception is classified under social cognition, the brain’s ability to store and process available information associated with creatures of the same species. Aside from available information, observers with different moods and temperament can account for a variety of perceptions.
Many psychologists and sociologists agree that an individual’s social perception can have some inaccuracies or even be utterly wrong. It is inevitable that people will have biases, which causes wrong perception. One example is the in-group bias. An individual is more likely to perceive someone in a positive light if he is a member of the individual’s group, such as in a family or a clique. This favoritism can also be seen among romantic couples, where a partner sees more of his partner’s good qualities as opposed to the bad. In contrast, an individual can have prejudice against someone who is not affiliated with the group.
Another kind of biased social perception is the halo effect. Usually, people have a tendency to associate positive qualities with people who are physically attractive, rather than with people who might be plain-looking or even ugly. Studies have shown that babies react more to pictures of beautiful women, by staring at them longer, than to pictures of less-appealing women. The halo effect can also explain why many people have judged and misunderstood subcultures to be rebellious, anti-social, and even disruptive.
Social perception can also be affected by nonverbal communication. In a process called joint attention, a person can hint to his companion to judge an object or another person by merely looking and pointing. A person’s smile or smirk towards a subject can hugely influence another person’s opinion of it, whether positive or negative. Social perception is an individual’s way of making order of his environment.
Perceiving a person or an object as such can greatly determine the individual’s actions. A dark alleyway, for example, will always be seen as a dangerous part of the street and will almost always be avoided. Tourists who are in need of direction will most likely approach a person who looks friendly or who is already smiling. In a way, social perception helps an individual decide on an action that will secure his betterment or survival.