Selective Perception Of Cues
Gordon Wainwright is an independent management training consultant. He has written several books on management communication skills, including 'Read Faster, Recall More' (also published by How To Books) and runs courses for a wide range of organisations, including multinationals and government departments.
A cue in this context is any action, signal or event which gives an individual information about what is happening in a situation. Some cues are more important than others. For instance, if you are about to cross a road, someone waving to you from the other side is less important than the bus which is moving towards you on your own side. Usually there are too many cues for all to be perceived (or seen and understood) within a given time frame. For this reason, you have to become selective and attend to those which are of key significance at the time. The more quickly and the more accurately you can do this the better and the faster you can perform.
Examples of the effectiveness of the selective perception of cues can be found in almost any area of human activity. A good driver will attend more carefully to the speed and relative positions of vehicles than to their colour or registration numbers. He or she will look for cues indicating what other road users may be about to do. Traffic lights ahead may change, young children on the kerb may unpredictably dash across the road, a dog may see another dog across the road and run to it without looking: a quick driver will spot all such potential hazards and be ready to react if the need arises. Anticipation is an important factor in the selective perception of cues.
In reading, the efficient performer will have clearly specified his or her purposes in advance, will have previewed (skimmed quickly through) the material first and will be actively looking for information rather than passively moving the eyes along the lines. This makes it possible to attend selectively to the parts that matter and so makes faster assimilation possible.
In sports, anticipation is an essential component of skilled performance, and a player has to be able to perceive selectively those cues that will enable him or her to respond before an opponent can prevent the scoring of a goal or a point. The faster such responses can be made, the better a player can become.
Even in everyday encounters with other people, a great deal of information about attitudes, motives and intentions is contained in nonverbal cues rather than in spoken words. The faster these can be identified and the more important ones responded to, the more quickly and effectively an individual can communicate.
Studies of highly skilled performers in these and other areas of activity have revealed that they actively seek cues which tell them that a situation is different from others and requires a different approach.
- They look for order and try to identify priorities.
- They look for key signposts, hierarchies of information (evidence of planning and structure).
- They are alert to anything that will help them to concentrate on what matters and pass over the trivial and the unimportant.
The laidback bears know what they are doing; the headless chickens are still busy but dashing around mindlessly.
Since, as has been said, there is normally too much information to be able to attend to everything, you should try to observe those cues which in effect say, ‘You have to take account of us, or else.’ Being able to do this helps flexible, planned performance. It allows overall for consistently greater speed.
You should try to identify priorities for your attention. Placing things in rank order with the most important at the top and the least important at the bottom helps to achieve this. Identifying, and differentiating, the important and the urgent helps too. If your car catches fire, it may be important that you rescue your briefcase but it is urgent that you yourself should escape the flames first. You can survive without your briefcase, but the alternative is no use to you at all.
It is best, once priorities have been determined, to keep to the rank order. Don’t chop and change like our headless chickens. If the sequence is appropriate and you have things in the right order, everything will work out all right in any case. If you have it wrong, write it off to experience, carry on and use the lessons learned to avoid that particular mistake in future.
Practise some (or all) of the following exercises and you will find that your skill in selectively perceiving cues steadily improves:
- 1.Read a feature article in a newspaper. You will usually find them in the centre pages. Try to pick out the central point in the article, the main fact, idea or conclusion that the writer is seeking to communicate to the reader. Write it down. Wait 24 hours, read the article again and see if you still agree with your own assessment. If you don’t, change it. If you do, you have most likely selected the main point first time round. If you can, you might also get a second opinion from someone else who has read the article.
- 2.Observe a street scene. On tape or in your notebook, record the key features of what you see. Then record all the other things that are happening or that are simply just there (types of buildings, road workings, people passing by, etc.). Decide how much you have ignored in focusing on the key features (most people will relegate details of buildings to the background, for instance, unless they happen to be architects). Assess how accurate you were in identifying the key features.
- 3.Sort the items in your in-tray into priorities. Make three piles: ‘Urgent’, ‘Important’ and ‘These Can Wait’. If you have no in-tray, try simulating an in-tray exercise by imagining you have one.
- 4.Obtain a ‘perceptual map’ (one on which key buildings and other landmarks are highlighted pictorially) of a city and compare it with a traditional street map of the same area. On what basis have the key features been selected? Is a perceptual map easier to follow?
- 5.Why can you drive faster (within legal speed limits) on an empty straight motorway than on an empty straight single-carriageway road? List as many reasons as you can (clues: Are there more things to attend to on a motorway or fewer? Are they closer or further away? What difference does it make?).
- 6.Consider the cues you attend to in deciding when a joint of meat is cooked, a car is roadworthy, potatoes are ready to be picked, and that someone is being sincere.
- 7.When planning a holiday or a business trip, list the key factors that you take into consideration. Can you identify things you take for granted?
- 8.If you work in a crowded room or if you attend a party or go into the local pub, note how you can attend to one thing and exclude others, talk on the phone despite the noise or pick out one person’s voice and listen to it. Ask yourself how well you can do these things. Practise one of them for a week or so and see if you notice any improvement.
- 9.During the Second World War, aircraft personnel were trained to spot enemy planes quickly by having silhouettes for them to identify flashed on to a screen. Practise this with silhouettes or photographs of cars from a car book. Time yourself over, say, fifty and see how much you can increase speed of identification in a week.
- 10.Draw a map of the route from your house to the nearest railway station or some similar destination as if for a stranger. What features and landmarks do you decide to include? How and why do you select them?
Selective perception of cues can not only speed up information processing, it can also make it more efficient by focusing on those features of a situation or sequence of events that can materially affect the outcome. As such, it is an ability which is of considerable value to the time creation student and is well worth practising by means of exercises like those above, in order to develop skill and make progress as a laidback bear.