3.3.0: Perception: (Co)Culture and Personality

Our co-cultural identities and our personalities affect our perceptions. Sometimes we are conscious of these effects and sometimes we are not. In either case, we have a tendency to favor others who exhibit cultural or personality traits that match up with our own. Since knowing more about these forces can help us become more aware, in this section, we will explore how culture/co-culture and personality influence our perceptions.


3.3.1: Culture and Co-culture

As we mentioned in chapter 2, culture and co-culture(s) influence our behaviors, values, beliefs, patterns of thinking, and perception of our environment. Therefore, cultural and co-cultural membership based on nationality, race, gender, sexual orientation, class, ability, and age all affect the perceptions that we make. The schemata through which we interpret what we perceive are influenced these memberships and identities. As we are socialized, we internalize beliefs, attitudes, and values shared by others within the dominant culture and our co-cultural groups. Schemata held by members of a group may have similarities or vary greatly.

Perception starts with information that comes in through our senses. How we perceive even basic sensory information is influenced by the dominant culture in which reside. For example, many U.S. Americans, regardless of co-cultural membership, spend considerable effort to mask natural body odor, which they typically find unpleasant, with soaps, sprays, and lotions. However, some other cultures would not find unpleasant or even notice what other cultures might consider “b.o.” Those same cultures may find a U.S. American’s “clean” (soapy, perfumed, deodorized) smell unpleasant. Aside from differences in reactions to basic information we take in through our senses, there is also variations in how we perceive more complicated constructs, like marriage, politics, and privacy. For example, some groups frown on unmarried couples living together, while others do not.

As we’ve already learned, our brain processes information by putting it into categories and looking for predictability and patterns. The previous examples have covered how we do this with sensory information like smell and with more abstract concepts like marriage, but we also do this with people. When we categorize people, we generally view them as “like us” or “not like us.” This simple us/them split affects subsequent interaction, including impressions and attributions. For example, we tend to view people we perceive to be like us as more trustworthy, friendly, and honest than people we perceive to be not like us (Brewer, 1999). We are also more likely to use internal attribution to explain negative behavior of people we perceive to be different from us. If a person of a different race cuts another driver off in traffic, the driver is even more likely to attribute that action to the other driver’s internal qualities (thinking, for example, “He or she is inconsiderate and reckless!”) than they would someone of their own race. Having such inflexible categories can have negative consequences, and later we will discuss how forcing people into rigid categories leads to stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination.

Of course, race isn’t the only marker of difference that influences our perceptions, and the problem with our rough categorization of people into “like us” and “not like us” categories is that these differences aren’t really as easy to perceive as we think. We cannot always tell whether or not someone is culturally like us through visual cues. For some co-cultural identities, like sexual orientation and ability, our awareness of any differences may only come when the other person discloses their identity to us. You no doubt frequently hear people talking and writing about the “vast differences” between men and women. Whether it’s communication, athletic ability, or expressing emotions, people will line up to say that women are one way and men are the other way. While it is true that gender affects our perception, the reason for this difference stems more from social norms than genetic, physical, or psychological differences between men and women. We are socialized to perceive differences between men and women, which leads us to exaggerate and amplify what the differences actually are (McCornack, 2007). We basically see the stereotypes and differences we are told to see, which helps to create a reality in which gender differences are “obvious.” In addition, by placing groups into binaries (such as man/woman or heterosexual/homosexual), nonbinary experiences and perceptions are often silenced and ignored.

In summary, various (co)cultural identities shape how we perceive others because beliefs, attitudes, and values of the groups to which we belong are incorporated into our schema. Our personalities also present interesting perceptual advantages and challenges that we will now discuss.


3.3.2: Personality

Our personalities greatly influence how we see ourselves in the world and how we perceive and interact with others. Personality refers to a person’s general way of thinking, feeling, and behaving based on underlying motivations and impulses (McCornack, 2007). These underlying motivations and impulses form our personality traits. Personality traits are “underlying,” but they are fairly enduring once a person reaches adulthood. That is not to say that people’s personalities do not change, but major changes in personality are not common unless they result from some form of trauma.

Image: Stavros Markopoulous, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
(Image: Stavros Markopoulous,CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Our personalities influence our perception. For example- would you say this glass is half empty or half full? It is said that those who see the glass as half empty are pessimists, where those who view it as half full are optimists. Do you agree or disagree with such an assessment?


Although personality scholars believe there are thousands of personalities, they all comprise some combination of the same few traits and appear to be representative of personalities across cultures. Much research has been done on personality traits, and the “Big Five” that are most commonly discussed are extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness (McCrea, 2001).

The Big Five Personality Traits

  • Extroversion/Introversion: Refers to a person’s interest in interacting with others and how they “recharge” their energy. Extroverts “recharge” through interactions with others, while introverts “recharge” by being alone. This may cause extroverts to be more social and introverts to be less social, however this is not always the case. While many tend to conflate introversion with being shy, introverts can also be social and/or outgoing.
  • Agreeableness: Refers to a person’s level of trustworthiness and friendliness. People with high agreeableness are cooperative and likable. People with low agreeableness are suspicious of others and sometimes aggressive, which makes it more difficult for people to find them pleasant to be around.
  • Conscientiousness: Refers to a person’s level of self-organization and motivation. People with high conscientiousness are methodical, motivated, and dependable. People with low conscientiousness are less focused, less careful, and less dependable.
  • Neuroticism: Refers to a person’s level of negative thoughts regarding himself or herself. People high in neuroticism are insecure and experience emotional distress and may be perceived as unstable. People low in neuroticism are more relaxed, have less emotional swings, and are perceived as more stable.
  • Openness: Refers to a person’s willingness to consider new ideas and perspectives. People high in openness are creative and are perceived as open minded. People low in openness are more rigid and set in their thinking and are perceived as “set in their ways.”

Scholarship related to personality serves many purposes, and some of them tie directly to perception. We tend to focus on personality traits in others that we feel are important to our own personality. What we like in ourselves, we like in others, and what we dislike in ourselves, we dislike in others (McCornack, 2007). If you admire a person’s loyalty, then loyalty is probably a trait that you think you possess as well. If you work hard to be positive and motivated and suppress negative and unproductive urges within yourself, you will likely think harshly about what you’ve perceived as negative traits in someone else. After all, if you can suppress your negativity, why can’t they do the same? This way of thinking isn’t always accurate or logical, but it is common, and it impacts the way we communicate with one another.


Personality Test:

If you are interested in how you rank in terms of personality traits, there are many online tests you can take. A Big Five test can be taken at the following website: http://www.outofservice.com/bigfive.)

Back to: I.C.A.T Interpersonal Communication Abridged Textbook > Chapter 3: The Perception Process & Perception of Others