In the interpretation stage of perception, we attach meaning to stimuli. Each stimulus or group of stimuli can be interpreted in many different ways. Interpretation refers to the process by which we represent and understand stimuli that affect us. Our interpretations are subjective and based on personal factors. It is in this final stage of the perception process that individuals most directly display their subjective views of the world around them.
Factors that Influence Interpretation
Cultural values, needs, beliefs, experiences, expectations, involvement, self-concept, and other personal influences all have tremendous bearing on how we interpret stimuli in our environment.
Prior experience plays a major role in the way a person interprets stimuli. For example, an individual who has experienced abuse might see someone raise their hand and flinch, expecting to be hit. That is their interpretation of the stimulus (a raised hand). Someone who has not experienced abuse but has played sports, however, might see this stimulus as a signal for a high five. Different individuals react differently to the same stimuli, depending on their prior experience of that stimuli.
Values and Culture
Culture provides structure, guidelines, expectations, and rules to help people understand and interpret behaviors. Ethnographic studies suggest there are cultural differences in social understanding, interpretation, and response to behavior and emotion. Cultural scripts dictate how positive and negative stimuli should be interpreted. For example, ethnographic accounts suggest that American mothers generally think that it is important to focus on their children's successes while Chinese mothers tend to think it is more important to provide discipline for their children. Therefore, a Chinese mother might interpret a good grade on her child's test (stimulus) as her child having guessed on most of the questions (interpretation) and therefore as worthy of discipline, while an American mother will interpret her child as being very smart and worthy of praise. Another example is that Eastern cultures typically perceive successes as being arrived at by a group effort, while Western cultures like to attribute successes to individuals.
Expectation and Desire
An individual's hopes and expectations about a stimulus can affect their interpretation of it. In one experiment, students were allocated to pleasant or unpleasant tasks by a computer. They were told that either a number or a letter would flash on the screen to say whether they were going to taste orange juice or an unpleasant-tasting health drink. In fact, an ambiguous figure (stimulus) was flashed on screen, which could either be read as the letter B or the number 13 (interpretation). When the letters were associated with the pleasant task, subjects were more likely to perceive a letter B, and when letters were associated with the unpleasant task they tended to perceive a number 13. The individuals' desire to avoid the unpleasant drink led them to interpret a stimulus in a particular way.
Similarly, a classic psychological experiment showed slower reaction times and less accurate answers when a deck of playing cards reversed the color of the suit symbol for some cards (e.g. red spades and black hearts). Peoples' expectations about the stimulus ("if it's red, it must be diamonds or hearts") affected their ability to accurately interpret it.
This term describes the collection of beliefs people have about themselves, including elements such as intelligence, gender roles, sexuality, racial identity, and many others. If I believe myself to be an attractive person, I might interpret stares from strangers (stimulus) as admiration (interpretation). However, if I believe that I am unattractive, I might interpret those same stares as negative judgments.