A Study of Some Social Factors in Perception

Chapter 4

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Until now our studies have been concerned primarily with the perceptual material which demonstrated the influence of the group through suggestion. We have used laboratory material of a sort which is not found commonly in actual social life, but which, nevertheless, demonstrated the psychological processes in such cases. In the present study we shall try to see how the psychological phenomena involved in the frame-of-reference concept may be applied to a concrete problem of prestige-suggestion. Our task in the present chapter is to make the subjects face similar situations, which in themselves do not possess differential affective value, and note how names with differential prestige value pull judgments up or down.

Experimental studies have already been reported that show the definite influence of stereotypes on perception and affective ratings. Goring (14), while testing Lombroso's criminal-type theory, showed how the stereotyped way of linking high forehead with high intelligence influenced the judgments about the foreheads of 300 British convicts made by warden and prison physician-two persons who see them every day !

Our likes and dislikes create a correspondingly favorable or unfavorable "picture in our minds." Taking advantage of this phenomenon, Rice (35) presented newspaper pictures to his subjects and asked them to connect the pictures with some label representing well-established stereotypes in American society. He found wide displacements. For example, a Soviet leader was labeled as a U. S. Senator and vice versa. Farnsworth and Beaumont (11) presented to their subjects pictures from the works of "unknown" painters with a paragraph of praise or devaluation attached to each. These paragraphs affected the rankings. Zillig (43), a German school teacher, first ascertained who among the pupils were considered favorites, and who were most disliked by their classmates. She instructed the former to do the wrong thing deliberately. In a short gymnastic period, she asked a mixed group to lift their right hands, but, as instructed in advance, the favorite pupils did the wrong thing. However, not they, but the disliked ones were reported by the other pupils to have done the wrong thing.

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Our study proceeds from these results. Our experiment was begun at Harvard Psychological Laboratory in 1931. The experiment was repeated in three successive years on different subjects. There were 228 subjects in all in three experiments.


A mimeographed sheet containing the names of sixteen authors arranged in alphabetical order (Barrie, Joseph Conrad, James Fenimore Cooper, Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Hawthorne, Kipling, Poe, Ruskin, Scott, Stevenson, Thackeray, Tolstoy, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Thornton Wilder) was presented to the subjects with the following instructions at the top of the sheet

"Place beside each name a figure indicating the order of preference you have for the following authors. Make your judgment solely on the grounds of subjective liking for the words of the writer. If you have no feeling of like or dislike for a certain author, you may omit his name. Place the figure (1) beside the name of the writer whose work you like best, (2) beside the next, and so on until you have arranged all with whom you are acquainted. "

These ratings were designated as Series A.

One month later the same subjects were given sixteen mimeographed slips each containing a short passage of three or four lines and, so far as three judges could determine, of about the same literary value. Under each passage was placed the name of one of the sixteen authors used in the first part of the experiment. Each passage was ascribed to a different author, but in reality all the passages were taken from one author, namely, Robert Louis Stevenson. No subject suspected the deception. The instructions for the second part of the experiment were as follows

"Attached are sixteen descriptive passages with the authors' names. Kindly arrange these in order of your preference by inserting a figure (1) at the left of the passage which appeals to you most. Make your judgments simply on the grounds of liking or disliking of the passages. Place (2) against the next most pleasing passage. If it is difficult to distinguish closely between the different passages, you are asked simply to "guess" if no more accurate judgment is possible."

These ratings were designated as Series B.

After the ratings in Series B were completed a written introspective report was secured from each subject, as to whether he or

( 49) she had made a special effort to eliminate the influence of the author's names in evaluating the passages, either by covering them while the judgments were being made or by intentionally disregarding them.

The correlation between the order of preference for authors (Series A) and the judgment of the literary merit of the passages ascribed to the same authors (Series B) was calculated for each subject. Correlations were computed by the Spearman rank order formula.

The results are classified into two groups on the basis of the introspective reports of the subjects: (1) those who did not make a special effort to overcome the influence of the authors' names; (2) those who did make a special effort to overcome this influence.

In the Harvard group there were 33 subjects. 25 of these did not make a special effort to overcome the influence of the authors' names or to ignore them altogether. For this group the average correlation between liking of authors and liking of passages bearing their names was +.45. 8 subjects made a special effort to overcome the influence of the authors' names or to ignore them altogether. The average correlation for this group was -.30. At Radcliffe there were 19 subjects. 11 subjects came under Group I, and the average correlation for this group was +.53. There were 8 subjects in Group II, and the average correlation was +.04.

The fact that the results obtained from those who had made a special effort to overcome the influence of the authors' names gave practically zero correlation shows that the intrinsic value of the passages was not a factor working in any direction. In contrast with this, the positive correlations (+.45 in the case of Harvard ; +.53 in the case of Radcliffe) obtained from those who took a natural attitude, indicate the influence upon the evaluations exerted by the names attached to the passages.


The second experiment was carried on in the psychological laboratory of Gazi Teachers College, Ankara, Turkey, the following year. In general the procedure followed the Harvard experimen with certain slight modifications and controls.

Here again all the passages were taken from one single author Twelve Turkish authors' names and twelve passages were used. A a control the passages were prepared in two forms. In both forms the passages were the same, but the names of the twelve authors were

( 49) distributed in a different order, so that a different author's name appeared under the corresponding passages of Forms I and II. The subjects were students of four different colleges. In each case the first form was given to one-half of the group and the second form to the other half. This was done as a control to check upon the influence of the intrinsic literary value that any passage might have.

This experiment was carried out on 106 subjects; 67 subjects, were male and 39 female. The records of a few subjects who reported that they deliberately ignored the names of the authors were discarded. The correlations may be summarized as follows : The average correlation for 67 male subjects was +.46. The average correlation for 39 female subjects was +.50.

Between the correlations from Forms I and II there were no significant differences. Therefore one may conclude, as in the first experiment, that the intrinsic value of the passages did not play a part in giving these correlations.


The third experiment was carried on at Harvard two years after the first experiment. 70 subjects were used; 29 students from Harvard, 20 from Radcliffe, 9 from the School of Education, and 12 adults attending an extension course. The results from these last two groups are combined because they are comparable.

To make the results comparable with the first experiment the same material was used. The procedure was the same, but the same control as in the second experiment was used. That is, the material was prepared in two forms as a check upon the intrinsic value of the passages. The results here also indicate that the correlations were not influenced by the intrinsic value of the passages. The results obtained from the subjects who did not make a consistent effort to overcome the influence of the authors' names or to ignore them altogether are as follows

Average correlation for 32 Harvard students +.33.

Average correlation for 17 Radcliffe students  +.45.

Average correlation for 18 adult students   +.30.

There were nine subjects who simply ignored the names of the authors. The average correlation for these nine subjects is -.03. Therefore the results of the third experiment correspond with the results of the first and second experiments.

On the basis of these experiments it may be concluded that prestige-suggestion or stereotype plays a considerable part in peoples'

( 51) judgments. In other words, the attitudes towards authors serve as reference points. Authors rated high tend to pull up the rating of the passages attributed to them, and conversely, authors rated low tend to pull down the ratings of the passages attributed to them. This is but a specific case of a general psychological principle. It appears that our judgments, like our perceptions, are organized in relation to definite reference points or in relation to a general level of reference.

In the written introspective records obtained right after the experiments, several subjects spontaneously reported they "wished that the names of the authors were not there," or that they "were irritated by the presence of the author's name." Such emotional remarks indicate that the point of reference which causes the bias is sometimes a matter of considerable concern to the subject himself.

Inspection of the introspections further illustrates the effect shown in the correlations. In fact, in some cases the introspections show definitely why some correlations are high and some are low, following the operation of the same principle of frame of reference in opposite directions. A few of the most interesting cases follow

A subject who gave very low correlation wrote, "I did not make any effort not to be prejudiced. But I simply disregarded the authors' names attached." (Emphasis by the subject.)

A shift in the frame of reference causes a corresponding shift in evaluation. One subject reported that "I made an effort not to be prejudiced by the name of the author, Mark Twain excepted. I was prejudiced against him in judging his selection. I had just made a critical study of his writings." The correlation obtained from this subject is .26, but when Mark Twain is excluded from the computation, his correlation rises to .61. In the first series Mark Twain was ranked as 2 (next to the highest) ; in the second series the passage attributed to Mark Twain is rated as 16, the lowest.

Cases of this sort present something to be taken into consideration seriously by those who are working on attitude and personality traits. With the shift in value or value system (frame of reference), a corresponding shift in the attitude and even of the general level of attitude may follow. Similarly, a person with an ascendant "trait" may be submissive in equal degree in a different frame. Lewin has recently shown brilliantly how people manifesting some definite "trait" in a social environment may drop it when the properties of the new situation are altogether different.

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Out of 228 subjects, only one suspected the deception of the passages. She was a student majoring in social psychology and wrote, "I decided the names of the authors were all mixed up, so I just had to rely on my aesthetic judgment." Her correlation was -.28.


This paper is an approach to the study of differential responses determined by social factors when the individuals face the same stimulus situation. Such social determination of differential responses is amply found in the observations of cultural anthropologists. Individuals belonging to different cultures may react in widely different ways to the same objective stimulus situation. These differences, for our purpose, may be expressed as due to differences of subjective values and norms (frames of reference). The importance of the concept of reference point (frame of reference) is seen in the results of many psychological investigations in different fields. Evidence suggests that we may be dealing with a general psychological concept.

In many cases the objective situation is dominant in the determination of perception. There are cases, however, in which this objective determination is lacking, thus allowing the internal factors, such as attitude, subjective norms, and values to play the dominating rôle in the organization of the perceptual field.

Since in the autokinetic effect we find such an indefinite stimulus-situation and hence subjective uncertainty and instability, this effect was used in a series of experiments to study the influence of various social factors. If the subject's reports show consistency in a particular experiment, this may be taken as an index of the influence of the social factor experimentally introduced. In these experiments such factors as instruction by the experimenter, direct suggestion, group influence, and prestige-suggestion (in the author's experiment) were used.

In the range experiments the subjects estimated the extent of the movement repeatedly. It was found that in the absence of an objective range (scale) and reference points, the subject builds up his own range (scale) and reference point (norm) within that range in the course of the experiment.

When two or three individuals give their judgments in the presence of each other (group situation) the whole group establishes a range and a point of reference peculiar to the group. A norm once

( 53) established in a group situation persists in the individual member even when he faces the same situation alone subsequently.

When individuals who have established their individual norms in separate experimental sessions are later put into a group situation, their points of reference converge towards a common norm, representing a "funnel-shaped" relationship. But convergence in this case is not as great as in groups starting with the group situation.

Instructions by the experimenter suggesting a definite direction for the autokinetic movement serve to emphasize this direction in the perceptual field. In most cases the subjects perceive the movement in the suggested direction.

Authors' names which were ascertained to have definite prestige-value for the subjects were attached to short prose passages which in themselves were affectively undifferentiated. Prestige-suggestion given by the author's name served to increase or decrease the perceived value of the passage in the direction of the prestige-value of the authors.

It is suggested that these experiments furnish some insight into the psychological basis of some important phenomena in social psychology. Stereotypes, fads and fashions, customs, traditions, and attitudes are, psychologically, cases of the establishment of socially determined norms and values serving as frames of reference.


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