Perceptual Bias

Perceptual bias is the lens we automatically filter all of our experiences through. It makes some things seem more noteworthy than others. It guides our reactions and thoughts about what we experience, see, or feel. You cannot get entirely away from perceptual bias. Who you are, where you come from, and what you have experienced before all create that bias of perception in your mind.

Consider your emotional reaction, if any, to hearing a child scream the next aisle over in a store. If you grew up in a household that was safe and comforting, perhaps you imagine that the child has fallen and hurt himself. Imagine how your reactions and expectations in that situation would change if you grew up in a home where children were often hit, pinched, kicked, or otherwise hurt for minor behavioral infractions. Might you think the child was being abused? Perhaps as importantly, how would you react to those perceptions? These reactions, emotions, expectations, and logical (intuitive) leaps all define your personal, unique perceptual bias. How you perceive the world around you.

How is this relevant to a writer, you ask?

Point of view and perceptual bias are the same thing.

Your perceptual bias creates and defines your personal point of view.

Consider a memoir written in first person. No one would argue that the words on the page aren’t influenced by the writer’s expectations, reactions, and experiences. In the same way, each character from whose point of view you tell a story should have a perceptual bias, a unique point of view. If done well, writing from a limited point of view filters the events of story, the setting, the actions of other characters, etc, through the perceptual bias of the PoV character.

This is easier to accomplish, obviously, in a story with only one point of view character. The reader may not even notice if the author’s own biases slip through onto the page. But in a story where you have multiple point of view characters narrating, the readers will notice if the six year old street urchin sounds, acts, and reacts in the exact same ways as the pampered and sheltered queen does from her lofty throne. The urchin would notice different things, would tune out things the queen focused on and vice versa. This is a product of the character’s perceptual bias.

In order to create unique points of view for the narrating characters in a story, the author has to be aware of their own perceptual bias – and overcome it – in order to stay true to the experiences, expectations, and emotional reactions of the character.

But wait, I said you can’t get away from your perceptual bias, right?

That’s right!

Unfortunately, if you were raised to believe that people of color are dangerous, you may always have that gut reaction when seeing a person of color on the street corner. In our modern world, where we attempt to eliminate prejudice and treat all human beings as relevant and equitable, having a bias like that can be a very difficult factor to admit to oneself.

Simply becoming aware of it helps, though. As does realizing that your personal reaction to a situation may not be shared by everyone else, in their own unique perceptual bias. Further, realize that just because you were taught or have experienced some things that lead you to a perceptual bias, does not mean that every situation or person will meet that bias. Our biases, like our perceptions, can be dead wrong. It is vital that we, as writers, leave our minds open to other possibilities. Learning to question that bias, to see or at least attempt to see things from other people’s perspectives, can aid you in major ways when it comes to working with the unique, distinct points of view your richly imagined characters deserve.

What perceptual bias do you bring to the writing table? Are there any biases you carry that your writing attempts to counter?

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4 Responses to Perceptual Bias

  1. Great post! I’m linking back to you.

    The first perceptual bias that comes to mind was at the beginning of this post — my first thought at hearing a child scream in a store was s/he was having a temper tantrum.

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