Perceptions of reality, or social reality, can be conceptualized as an individual’s conception of the world (Hawkins & Pingree 1982). What intrigues many social scientists is the exploration of the specifics of these perceptions and the ways in which they are developed. Social perception has been considered from both individual- and social-level perspectives.
The individual-level conception of social reality – or, as McLeod and Chaffee (1972) refer to it, social reality – suggests that others exist in one’s mind as imaginations, and it is only in these imaginations that others have an effect on the individual. The perspective of social reality defines the social system as the unit of analysis. These scholars focus on understanding commonly held perceptions shared in society. They often base their exploration on individuals’ perceptions of what others think, or whether an individual believes that an opinion or attitude is shared by others. Because the media, in particular, provide individuals with indirect representations of reality, communication scholars have been particularly interested in how individuals develop cognitions of social reality based upon their use of and attention to the media.
General Perception Effects
Several phenomena describing perceptions (and misperceptions) of social reality have been outlined in the literature. The term pluralistic ignorance is often used as an umbrella to describe all misperceptions of others’ opinions. Research in this area is primarily concerned with the factors that lead to individuals being more or less accurate about reality, focusing on the discrepancy between individual perceptions and actual reality.
Consensus occurs when homogeneous opinions exist across a group of individuals. Some research has suggested that an overestimate of consensus occurs when individuals perceive greater consensus on their own opinion than exists in reality. In this way, overestimation of consensus is ‘absolute’ because it is objectively false. The concept of false consensus describes the tendency to see one’s own behaviors and opinions as normal and those of others as deviant or inappropriate, which results in exaggerating the prominence of one’s own opinions.
Social projection is generally defined as the psychological phenomenon that drives several other inaccurate perceptions, including the silent majority or false idiosyncrasy effect, which occurs when some individuals support a position on an issue vocally and prominently, while those opposed to the issue – even if they are in the majority – remain silent. The disowning projection refers to the tendency toward attributing selfish motives, evil intent, or ignorance to others and denying these characteristics of oneself. The looking-glass perception occurs when people see others as holding the same view as they themselves hold.
Media-Specific Perception Effects
Another group of theories focuses on individuals’ perceptions about media content or its influence on others. The third-person effect predicts that individuals exposed to a persuasive message will perceive greater effects on others than on themselves (Davison 1981). Impersonal influence describes the influence derived from anonymous others’ attitudes, experiences, and beliefs. From this perspective, media do not need to be universally consonant or even personally persuasive in order to impact individuals’ perceptions of media influence (Mutz 1998).
The hostile media phenomenon suggests that partisans see news media coverage of controversial events as portraying a biased slant, even in news coverage that most nonpartisans label as unbiased (Vallone et al. 1985). An underlying assumption of this phenomenon is that media coverage is essentially unbiased. The persuasive press inference hypothesis draws from the hostile media phenomenon and third-person effect and places the effects into one process, i.e., people overestimate the impact of news coverage on public opinion and because of this misperception, estimates of public opinion are inaccurate (Gunther 1998).
Causal Mechanisms for Social-Reality Perceptions and Misperceptions
Some research on perceptions of social reality has emphasized mass media as the primary causal mechanism explaining perceptions of social reality. Because few people have direct personal experience with politics, mediated information has the ability to influence individuals’ perceptions of social reality at the collective level. That is, media enhance the salience of social-level judgments, in addition to influencing perceptions of public opinion.
First, spiral of silence theory suggests that because the climate of opinion is always vacillating, individuals are “scanning” their social environment for cues of what constitutes majority and minority opinion (Noelle-Neumann 1993). The media are one such source, but often present biased viewpoints. As a result of this individuals perceive a majority perspective, and this perception either promotes or prevents them from speaking out (see Schulz and Roessler 2012).
Second, cultivation implies that, over time, people are influenced by the content on television so that their perceptions of reality come to reflect those presented on television. This theory also purports that media content displays distorted estimates of social reality, e.g., the rates of crime and violence which in turn lead to the overestimation of personal risks (Shrum & Bischak 2001).
Effects of social reality perceptions can also be attributed to other causal mechanisms in three broader categories: individual, individual–other, and social explanations.
Individual explanations include cognitions and motivations. One possible mechanism in this category of cognitive explanations is the accessibility bias, or the tendency to derive estimates of others’ views based upon that information that is most accessible in one’s memory. The third-person effect also is explained by cognitive ‘errors.’ The actor– observer attributional error occurs when individuals underestimate the extent to which others account for situational factors, and overestimate their own attention to these factors. Motivational explanations can also be applied to those theories that claim media as the primary causal mechanism. For instance, Noelle-Neumann cites fear of isolation, or a motivation not to be in the minority, as a driving force behind the spiral of silence.
Social harmony and public expression mechanisms belong in the category of individual–other explanations. Because conflict is not palatable to many people, there may exist motivations to see others’ positions on issues as more like their own in order to avoid argument or dissonance (social harmony). Misperceptions of social reality at the individual–other level also can arise from either intentional or unintentional misrepresentation of one’s opinions in public. The differential interpretation hypothesis describes a conscious decision to publicly misrepresent one’s opinion, while the differential encoding hypothesis suggests that some individuals suffer from an “illusion of transparency,” mistakenly believing that their own and others’ opinions are accurately expressed publicly (Prentice and Miller 1993).
The social explanations are based upon what McLeod and Chaffee (1972) referred to as social reality, wherein a context or situation serves as the causal mechanism underlying perceptions of social reality. For instance, if an issue is particularly divisive, individuals are prone to the false consensus effect because they see one side as more similar to themselves and the other side as deviant or uncommon.
- Davison, W. P. (1981). The third-person effect in communication. Public Opinion Quarterly, 47, 1–15.
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- Gunther, A. C. (1998). The persuasive press inference: Effects of mass media on perceived public opinion. Communication Research, 25(5), 486–504.
- Hawkins, R. P. & Pingree, S. (1982). Television’s influence on social reality. In L. B. D. Pearl & J. Lazar (eds.), Television and behavior: Ten years of scientific progress and implications for the eighties. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, pp. 224–247.
- McLeod, J. M. & Chaffee, S. R. (1972). The construction of social reality. In J. T. Tedeschi (ed.), The social influence processes. Chicago, IL: Aldine-Atherton, pp. 50–99.
- Mutz, D. C. (1998). Impersonal influence: How perceptions of mass collectives affect political attitudes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Noelle-Neumann, E. (1993). The spiral of silence: Public opinion, our social skin. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
- Prentice, D. A. & Miller, D. T. (1993). Pluralistic ignorance and alcohol use on campus: Some consequences of misperceiving the social norm. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64(2), 243–256.
- Schulz, A. & Roessler, P. (2012). The spiral of silence and the Internet: Selection of online content and the perception of the public opinion climate in computer- mediated communication environments.
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- Shrum, L. J. & Bischak, V. D. (2001). Mainstreaming, resonance, and impersonal impact: Testing moderators of the cultivation effect for estimates of crime risk. Human Communication Research, 27(2), 187–215.
- Vallone, R. P., Ross, L., & Lepper, M. R. (1985). The hostile media phenomenon: Biased perceptions and perceptions of media bias in coverage of the Beirut massacre. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49(3), 577–585.