Perception Research

An infamous example of how one person's perception may differ from others is the black and blue or white and gold dress. You may recall the viral picture where some people described a blue and black striped dress whilst others argued it as white and gold. These are two stark colours, so how can they be confused? 

Perception Research Perception Research

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Table of contents

    It's because individual differences influence perception. Perception research tries to understand these perceptual processes and the factors influencing them.

    • We will start with an introduction to perception, including some of the perception research topics investigated in psychology.
    • We will then look at the most commonly used perception research methodology and perception research designs.
    • Next, we will shift the focus to learning about research on perception in psychology. The focus will be on studies by Haber and Levin (2001) and Carmichael, Hogan and Walter (1932).

    Perception Research Topics

    Perception is a subjective process influenced by individual differences, meaning how one person perceives something will be totally different from another.

    Perception refers to the process by which individuals become aware and process the stimuli around them.

    Because perception involves our interpretation of stimuli, there is a subjective element to remember when considering perception studies.

    Subjectivity relates to the influence of personal feelings, opinions, and judgements. It is the opposite of objectivity.

    Psychologists have carried out research to identify factors that influence perception, such as:

    • Motivation.
    • Culture.
    • Schemas.

    Perception Research Methodology

    One challenging factor surrounding research methods on perception relates to how perception is defined and studied.

    The difficulty arises because some of the questions on the topic cannot be empirically tested but instead rely on subjective methods, e.g. the participant describing what they see.

    Empirical studies are research that collects data that is observable via the five senses. It is one of the core features that establishes research as scientific.

    Given the varied nature of the topic perception, various research methods are used to research the topic.

    Perception Research Design

    Psychologists use several different methods to study perception.

    Researchers use experimental methods to test whether manipulating one variable (independent variable) will affect another (dependent variable) whilst controlling external variables (extraneous/ confounding variables). They sometimes involve an 'experimental group' and a 'controlled group'.

    The experimental method can involve presenting a sensory stimulus to the participant and recording their response. Some stimuli used to investigate research on perception in psychology are:

    • Visual effects and illusions.
    • Object recognition.
    • Motion detecting.
    • Disguising images.

    The Ponzo illusion is an example of a stimulus used in psychology. In the illusion, parallel lines of equal lengths can be perceived as different lengths depending on the viewers' perspective/ perception.

    Perception Research, People walking down spiral staircase where the steps look like they get narrower and narrower, StudySmarterFig 1. The stairs appear to get narrower the further down people are on the staircase despite each step being the same size; this is an example of an illusion.

    Other experimental methods involve instruments whereby the subject's behaviour and reactions are recorded as they undergo a perceptual task, particularly in neuropsychological research on perception.

    Research instruments can take the form of surveys, questionnaires, and tests. However, sometimes these methods are not appropriate to use when investigating perception.

    What do certain objects look like to you? How would you describe your perception of certain colours? These are examples of introspective questions.

    The introspection method is where the researcher/ participant observes and records their sensations, beliefs, or emotions as data to analyse and evaluate for a study.

    Introspection techniques are not commonly used in psychology because it is widely regarded as unscientific. After all, it relies heavily on subjective opinions. As perception is not something the researcher can directly observe themselves, it is logical for researchers to use introspection techniques.

    Introspection usually involves giving participants standardised instructions with enough direction to help them understand what is required.

    Perception Quantitative Research: Haber and Levin (2001)

    Haber and Levin (2001) investigated size and distance perception. The study involved two experiments.

    Experiment 1 investigated how individuals estimate the size of familiar objects. And the researchers used a sample pool of 109 male psychology students at the University of Illinois.

    The study used a questionnaire that listed 50 recognisable objects, and each participant was required to estimate the size of each object using the standard US metric system.

    The objects were categorised as either token variant objects, meaning the object is available in many sizes or token invariant objects, where the object typically has one standard size.

    The results obtained were the following:

    • Participants could accurately judge the object's average or typical size.
    • There were deviations between 0.36 and 1.26 in token variant objects (they have a less constrained size range, such as Christmas trees).
    • There were deviations between up to 0.08 in token invariant objects (they had a constrained size range, such as a bowling ball).

    From the research, it can be inferred that there was little variability in responses when estimating the size of objects that have variability.

    Researchers concluded that size perception is based on our memory and past perception instead of present visual perception.

    Experiment 2 investigated the distance and size estimations of familiar token variants and token invariant objects (from experiment 1) and the size of unfamiliar objects. To test this, they used a sample of nine male students.

    Participants' eyesight was checked beforehand to ensure poor eyesight did not affect the study's outcome.

    Participants were taken to a field split into four quadrants, three with objects to see and the fourth empty. One had 15 token variant objects, one with 15 token invariant objects, and one with 15 objects of unknown sizes and participants stood in the empty quadrant.

    Each participant was instructed to write the size and distance of each object for all three quadrants. Participants were also told to rate how familiar they were with each object using a Likert scale (1 not familiar to 10 very familiar) in addition to giving cognitive estimations of their typical sizes.

    The results were the following:

    • Participants could accurately estimate the distance of token invariant objects; this trend remained whether the objects were closer or farther away.
    • Participants were less accurate at estimating token variants and unfamiliar objects.

    The researchers concluded that participants could estimate the size of token invariant objects better because they relied on memories, schemas, past experiences and expectations.

    Perception Research: Haber and Levin (2001) Evaluation

    The study presents both strengths and weaknesses:


    • Participants were screened before the experiment to ensure eyesight; a potential extraneous variable didn't affect the study's validity.


    • The studies used non-representative samples of only males or small sample size, making it difficult to generalise the results.

    • Arguably the study lacks practicality. In real life, when judging distances, there is usually motion involved, e.g. walking or driving, and the research does not consider this.

    Research on Perception in Psychology: Carmichael, Hogan and Walter (1932)

    This study aimed to test whether words presented with pictures affected perception.

    The study used an independent group design with a sample of 95 participants; 60 were females, and 35 were males and were either students or teachers.

    Participants were split into three groups, and participants were shown ambiguous figures. The ambiguous figures typically portrayed two nouns. Each group was shown the same pictures. The difference between the groups was:

    • Group 1 heard nouns that resembled the picture.
    • Group 2 heard different nouns that resembled the picture.
    • Group 3 were just shown the ambiguous figure.

    An example of an ambiguous figure shown was a figure that resembled either a window with curtains or a diamond within a rectangle. Group 1 were presented with the figure as well as hearing the noun window with curtains and Group 2 the latter noun.

    After each ambiguous figure had been presented, the participants were instructed to draw each figure from memory.

    The study found:

    • The control group (Group 3) had the lowest % score for drawing the images accurately.
    • Similar results were found between Group 1, and Group 2 had similar results of drawing figures that resembled the noun presented to them.

    From the research, it can be concluded that language affects how we perceive and recall information.

    Research on Perception in Psychology: Carmichael, Hogan and Walter (1932) Evaluation

    The study presents both strengths and weaknesses:


    • The study was conducted in a lab and used a control group. The benefit of the controlled setting means there is less likelihood of external factors influencing the study and lowering its validity. And the control group allows the researcher to make comparisons.

    • Additionally, the researchers designed the study to increase its internal reliability, e.g., by using multiple quality checkers of the figures drawn by participants.


    • The ambiguous nature of the study is artificial and lacks real-life situations, so it isn't easy to generalise these findings to real-life scenarios.
    • Prentice (1954) tested the effects of verbal labels on recognition rather than recall, and there was no effect, suggesting that Carmichael, Hogan and Walters' (1932) study is unreliable.

    Perception Research - Key takeaways

    • Perception refers to the process by which individuals become aware and process the stimuli around them.
    • Because perception involves our interpretation of stimuli, there is a subjective element to remember when considering research on perception in psychology.
    • There is a wide range of perception research designs available in psychology; these can include the experimental method, introspection techniques or the use of tests or questionnaires.
    • The Haber and Levin (2001) research supports the idea that perception is often based on memory and association rather than visual perception.
    • The Carmichael et al. (1932) case study presents how verbal association affects visual perception.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Perception Research

    What is perception research?

    Perception refers to the process by which individuals become aware and process the stimuli around them. Various perception research topics have been investigated to understand what factors influence it. 

    How do you measure perception in research?

    There are many varied ways to measure perception in research. The most common forms use research designs such as experimental, correlational, and introspection methods. The use of surveys, questionnaires, as well as tests, are also used. 

    Is perception a quantitative research?

    Quantitative research is research that collects numerical data. Although commonly quantitative methods are used to investigate perception, qualitative techniques are also used from time to time. 

    What is perception in psychology research? 

    Perception in research psychology can vary in what it can investigate. An example is a research investigating factors such as culture, motivation and expectations and how they influence perceptual processes. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    There is a ______ element when it comes to perception studies.

    Which of the following can bowling balls be categorised as?

    The experimental method is when...

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