Top Down Processing- Indirect theory of perception


Richard Gregory, a psychologist (1970), proposed that perception is constructive. In his opinion, it is a hypothesis based on prior knowledge and environment, in which we construct our perception of reality. In other words, top down processing allows us to perceive sensory information from the environment through context or prior experience. It is the act of making sense of information brought into our senses, working downward from initial impressions to particular details (Verywell mind).

For instance, when an ice cream truck gives a cue, small kids know that it is time to buy ice cream by having an idea of the truck’s signal to alert them, how the truck looks like and where it is packed. These kids can locate the ice cream truck and buy a popsicle through prior knowledge and initial experience. In another illustration, in the case of a person with visual impairment, they can discern that this is a chair and not a wall upon touching a surface. In applying context or prior experience, visually impaired persons can perceive new environments and get by easily.

Introduction– Top Down Processing

The phrase top-down implies starting with the general idea and having details gradually added (Merriam-webster). Such as, one could quickly work out the personality of a person by their way of dressing even before interacting with them. A sharply dressed person portrays the image of a serious and self-driven individual who automatically commands respect when compared to a raggedy individual. Different mental processes are involved in making impressions of other people.

The different conclusions, however, are informed by social roles and norms. Meaning it is typical for a person in a suit to work in an office setting where they are expected to carry themselves formally, as opposed to one in an overall, who works in a garage setting, where jesting can be considered contextual due to the informal setting of the work environment. In another scenario, lawyers must wear dull official clothing when going to work. While waiters or hotel attendants who mostly wear uniforms prefer warmer and bright colors. (very well mind)

In other words, general ideas become specific when we add context or experience to them. It enables us to streamline the sensory process to understand what we perceive. Meaning without this process, our senses would overwhelm us. Allow me, every mini-second, we see, feel, hear and smell dissimilar, at times unfamiliar sounds, smells, and sights at the same time. What if we process all this information in a bottom-up approach? Would it be possible to do anything else, seeing that our brains would already be overwhelmed with sensory information every mini-second of our lives? (though).

I suppose we could be, like robots, since our processing unit, the brain, would be jammed up with information, which is mostly unnecessary! It would not be of any value, upon seeing a bird perched on a branch that I, being a doctor, should stop, process its species, geniu,s and the type of food the bird eats based on its beak’s anatomy. If I were an ornithologist well and good, but not a doctor called in for an emergency in the Emergency Room following a major catastrophe in New York City.

The Constructivist

Gregory argues that about 90% of visual information is lost between the time it reaches the eye and gets to the brain. Meaning what we analyze is around 10% of the sensory information received. Therefore, we heavily rely on context and initial experiences to make sense of new information. Subsequently, making sense of our perceptions by constructing them with a combination of sensory information and pre-existing knowledge about the world (ThoughCo). Upon seeing a peculiar man in a very fast-moving subway train, his dressing, perhaps height, and visible physical features would stand out. However, since you only get a glimpse, you would probably construct the rest using prior experience and knowledge. Specific information, such as their race or personality type, which is not conspicuous, will be assumed, mostly in the wrong perception.

Say, for example, one can easily perceive that a person is a firefighter from their dressing as they wear fire-retardant and reflective fabric, a helmet, and a reflective strap vest as part of their uniform. Irrespective of their race or personality, one can make an informed decision of their personality. Generally, firefighters are selfless individuals willing to put their lives at risk for others’ sake, resulting in a positive acknowledgment of an individual by society. This would be irrespective of an individual’s specific personality traits, which is later used to construct their personalities around a selfless perception resulting in a generally positive outlook. On the other hand, the public views an escort in a negative light. They are shamed, associated with mediocrity, and viewed as home wreckers despite their individuality. Branded by their occupation and outrightly disrespected, the society has made a judgment call on them based on pre-existing knowledge passed down through generations.

Emotion and Perception

What is the correlation between emotion and perception? Do our emotions affect our perception of reality? Are you biased based on your emotional state at the time of perception? In my opinion, the emotional state of a person invariable influences their perception of reality. We see what we want to see. Even though, at most times, it is a wrong perception. For example, a bright sunny morning invigorates us resulting in happiness compared to a gloomy, dull, and wet morning. On a sunny morning, on the way to work, brightly colored flower petals tend to stand out as opposed to a dull, wet morning when we pass by without noticing the brightly colored flower petals.

The fact that we did not notice the flowers does not mean that they were not there. It elucidates the fact that our emotional state influences our sensory information. Another telling example of the emotional state is attitude. Emotions influence one’s attitude towards something or someone. They say a hungry man is an angry man. When one is hungry, one becomes more irritable, causing one to be easily frustrated or upset. During such emotional outbursts, one becomes less productive due to an interfered concentration span. At such times, it is easy for someone to miss something in plain sight as opposed to when one is composed. Hence the quote, ‘do not make decisions when you are angry.’

Furthermore, our perception of scenarios ultimately influences our attitude. The adage, once bitten twice shy, wraps it all up. One will be shy to jaywalk again after a bad altercation with traffic police instead of the first time. This time their prior experience arouses negative emotions, influencing perception and attitude towards police officers, which influences ones’ decision towards jaywalking. In the recent past, due to racial injustices in the United States of America, many people have taken to the streets to express their disappointment towards the Police Department. People of color perceive the police negatively due to their initial experiences and prior knowledge compared to the rest, which informs their decisions and shapes their behavior towards police officers.

Emotional arousal guides attention so that peoples’ attention is drawn towards arousing objects. For example, when someone reads a book in a library and happens to hear the fire alarm, they will immediately shift their attention towards the direction of the alarm and away from the book. Context and previous information will direct their next move, vacating the building immediately because there is a fire somewhere, even without seeing the fire. Using the top-down process, we can quickly comprehend sensory input and apply contextual information, especially pattern recognition.

In the above scenario, fire alarms arouse fear and panic, which translates into adrenaline production in the body to aid fleeing. Such emotions override our perceptions, causing us to instantly shift our focus towards that which is arousing negative emotions. As a result, without order, as people flee for safety, many are injured due to stampedes because, at this point, perception is influenced by fear and panic. Pattern recognition has been used in the past to inform the building of sufficient fire escape avenues where people can get out immediately, avoiding fatal stampedes.

Patterns and Creativity

In as much as the top-down approach is argumentatively sensible, it has a downside. When we use our knowledge, the perception we make becomes biased and limited in certain ways. This prevents us from perceiving things in unique ways hindering creativity. We are used to using lifts in a certain way. For instance, at my place of work, the lift system has been set so that you have to select the floor number when outside the lift so that a specific lift is assigned to you. So, what if one of the lifts, due to mechanical errors, fails to acknowledge your designated floor?

Would you select the floor from inside or immediately get off? I am used to the pattern of selecting the floor from outside, so on this particular morning, when my lift of assignment did not acknowledge my floor number, I immediately disembarked. It did not occur to me that I could select the floor number from inside the lift because, from my initial experience, this was never an option. However, we have learned that using the stairs is another beneficial option to explore with time. Another illustration would be when driving a car. Due to historical reasons, we have grown accustomed to driving on the right side of the United States road. This makes it difficult to drive in a foreign country, for instance, Kenya, that drives on the left side of the road due to confusion that can lead to fatal collisions.

Culturally Shaped Perceptions

Sensory information from our surroundings is frequently ambiguous. To make an inference, there is a need for higher cognitive information from initial experiences or stored up knowledge for perception. Illusions, therefore, persist even when we have full knowledge of their existence. For instance, a skimpily dressed woman is perceived as an escort, as opposed to a model. A sharply dressed man in a limousine with a bodyguard and driver is instantly perceived as a Chief Executive officer or celebrity instead of a prominent city lawyer. Overall, societal norms, values, and stereotypes inform our perception irrespective of the factual evidence before us. A woman has a higher chance of facing glass ceilings in her career development than a man due to systematic and historical injustices in the workplace.

Therefore, this will inform her decision in choosing a career path as she may tend to pursue one in which women have overcome these glass ceilings. Her confidence will be in their experience and achievements as opposed to a career path with no women role models to look up to. Throughout the years, it has been perceived that women should pursue more feminine careers such as nursing, teaching, or secretariat. Hence, it would have been absurd for a man to pursue feminine careers, as it was perceived as weak and inferior for a man to. On the other hand, it is absurd for a woman to pursue a technical career such as mechanics, architecture, or engineering. Such careers were considered manly and a preserve for men only. Therefore, it is safe to conclude that our cultures shape and inform our perception of reality, irrespective of factual evidence. This has made it very difficult to change cultural perceptions and stereotypes in the past as people are bent on inferring reality from perception informed by initial experience or personal knowledge based on culture.

The COVID-19 Pandemic

A modern era pandemic that has seen many unprecedented consequences. Translating into lifestyle changes and cultural modifications that have embraced all changes as the new normal. In Top-down processing, where perception begins with the most general and moves towards the most specific (Verywell mind), reality has been altered. The norm, such as blowing off candles on a birthday cake, is now challenged and unreservedly replaced. It is considered a threat to public health as such norms potentially infect masses with influenza resulting in a pandemic. It was ultimately informing our perception of food hygiene and its correlation to public health.

On the other hand, in the past, it was common and expected for a woman to take a break from her career to raise and nurture her children as well as to tend the home. A trend that has now been replaced by stay-at-home dads. In the United States of America and the rest of the world, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, dads have heartily taken up roles that were considered feminine. A proclivity that would have been frowned upon in the past, but due to the fast-changing work dynamics as a result of the work from home guidelines, a move to combat the spread of the virus, many men are embracing the idea of raising their kids as opposed to only fending for their families.

On the other hand, many of the dads who have had a chance of nurturing and raising their own kids are now inclined to work from home to have an active role in their kids’ lives instead of their previous passive roles. Speaking from initial experience and general knowledge, men now understand the intricate duties and responsibilities attached to raising children, esteeming it, and desiring to be part of it in the future. This will inform future trends that will shape, transform and inform social norms and cultures, impacting perception. Therefore, hypothetically speaking, the future generations will have dads who play an active role in nurturing and raising their kids instead of the past—an upshot to the ragging pandemic that has terrorized the world economy.


I would be remiss not to mention that perception through Top-down processing is an interpretation of sensory information through a combination of what we take in and what we already know about the world. Our realities are, therefore, shaped by our surroundings, which inform the interpretation of the world. Which informs our personalities and the path of life we choose to pursue in the future. The family life of an individual is a good casing point. A young woman or man from a large family of, say, seven children will desire the same for their future family.

A person from an improvised family will work hard in life so that their children will not have to go through the hardships they experienced while growing up. Children from broken families who have witnessed and suffered the effects of divorce may choose not to get married in the future hence the adage, once bitten twice shy. This informs their life decisions due to their perception of reality, even if it is wrong. Overall, Top-down processing plays a major role in shaping our realities even in the face of glaring evidence, as initial experience and general knowledge ultimately inform decisions. 



2. Cherry, Kendra. “Top-Down Processing and Perception.” very well Mind, 29 December 2018.

3. Vinney, Cynthia. “What is Top-Down Processing? Definitions and Examples.” ThoughtCo, 22 July 2019.

4. Cherry Kendra. “How Person Perception Helps Us Form Impressions of Others.” very well Mind, 10 May 2020.

Top Down Processing- Indirect theory of perception

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