Train at dawn
Photo by Samuel Fyfe on Unsplash

Selective Perception

Edward Stull
Published in
5 min readMar 30, 2019


Hiawatha Service 332 bypasses the steady state of arterial road traffic between Milwaukee and Chicago. In 89 minutes, the train’s riders depart Miltown’s intermodal gateway and eventually find themselves in the heart of Chicago’s Union Station. Long an early morning refuge for blurry-eyed salespeople and late-night party-goers, Hiawatha attracts a wide assortment of professions, cultures, and hangovers. However, each rider’s trip is unique, because each is a selective perception.

Map of Hiawatha Service 332
Hiawatha Service 332

Commuters and tourists alike fall asleep in peaceful unison within minutes of the train’s departure. Gaping mouths and contorted postures fill each carriage like dozens of goldfish placed on blue fabric seats, as the constant hum of the track passes beneath. Dah-dunk. Dah-dunk. Dah-dunk. The rhythm lulls even the most caffeinated to sleep. Some riders doze motionless. Others roll and fidget. They close their eyes. They wear headphones. They curl into the fetal position and form makeshift pillows out of jackets and sweaters. Consciousnesses rise and fall, governed by the lucidity of dreams and the placement of armrests.

Our brains search for stimuli, be it while riding a train or viewing a mobile app. If our seat is comfortable, we relax and slumber. If light gets in our eyes, we close the shade. We seek the pleasant and avoid the unpleasant. Aggravation yields to comfort. Pleasure beats provocation. In addition to our physical environments, we find the messages that pleasantly confirm our beliefs rather than unpleasantly challenge them. Social psychologists call this selective exposure, or the “confirmation bias.” We readily notice ads for products we already own. We eagerly recognize virtues in the political candidates we already support. We unhesitatingly accept compliments about things we already enjoy.

Aggravation yields to comfort. Pleasure beats provocation.

One glowing attribute casts a halo around all others. This halo effect affects everything from interpersonal relationships to international branding. We believe attractive people are also kind. We think profitable companies are also managed well. We will even defend our favorite brands by ignoring their competitors’ advertising. (1) You can experience this phenomenon firsthand: try to persuade an iPhone user to switch to Android; convince a Ford truck owner to buy a Chevrolet; coax a Snow user to download Snapchat; cajole a DietCoke drinker to order a Diet Pepsi. Good luck. Such halos surround us, enveloping our decisions in predictable delusion.

Annual Deaths from Smoking, United States

Moreover, we erect psychological barriers to threatening stimuli. Smoking causes nearly one in five deaths. (2) Texting causes one in four car accidents. (3) Unprotected sex causes one in two unplanned pregnancies. (4) Yet, even after being exposed to the dangers of smoking, texting while driving, and unprotected sex, a great number of us still smoke, text, and spend anxious moments awaiting the results of a test strip.

Psychological barriers affect the user experience of digital products, as well. A recent Pew Research report indicates that only 9% of social media users feel very confident that their records are private and secure. (5) However, the user base of such apps continues to grow, totaling 69% of the American public. (6) Users weigh the tradeoffs between privacy and utility, though risks and rewards are often perceived selectively. Likewise, as of January 2017, 4% of Samsung Galaxy Note 7 phones (7) — the defective and recalled devices that may spontaneously combust and burn their owners — have yet to be returned. Few user experiences carry such dire consequences, but we should note that even possible immolation is not a compelling enough argument to offset some people’s selective perception. We avoid the pitfalls of selective perception by acknowledging them. Users can even benefit from their inability to fully perceive an experience, thereby focusing on the necessary.

Three Samsung Galaxy Note 7 phones
Samsung Galaxy Note 7 by Pang Kakit [CC BY-SA 4.0]

We can also avoid the pitfalls of selective perception by recognizing its triggers. If you wish to buy a car, your perception will become focused on cars. Recognize that the ads and offers you will find are the result of this trigger, even though the information was always there, waiting for you to perceive it. That car commercial you just watched may be more of a selective perception than a true bargain.

As designers, we can intercept these triggers, thereby directing users to what is necessary. For example, imagine someone shopping for a train ticket. She wants to find the best price. Her focus is on the ticket’s cost, perceiving it above all other stimuli. She may not notice a train’s departure time. Placing vital information, such as the departure time, next to the price helps the user avoid a costly mistake. She catches the error before it happens, because we anticipated her selective perception.

Ticket scheduler for Amtrak
Screenshot from scheduler

Like daybreak filtering through a window, perception highlights some stimuli while obscuring others. It sifts through countless sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches, transforming what we could experience into what we will experience. Perception shapes our world. Patterns emerge, messages take form, and users awaken.

Key Takeaways:

  • Selective perception leads people to seek the pleasant and avoid the unpleasant.
  • Halo effects influence our perception by assigning the value of a known attribute to an unknown attribute.
  • People erect psychological barriers to threatening stimuli.
  • We can also avoid the pitfalls of selective perception by acknowledging it and recognizing its triggers.


  1. Fennis, Bob M. and Wolfgang Stroebe. The Psychology of Advertising. London: Routledge, 2009.
  2. “Smoking & Tobacco Use.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. May 15, 2017.Accessed June 08, 2018.
  3. National Safety Council. “NSC Releases Latest Injury and Fatality Statistics and Trends.” News release, March 25, 2014. National Safety Council. Accessed June 8, 2018.
  4. “Gateway to Health Communication & Social Marketing Practice.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. September 15, 2017. Accessed June 08, 2018.
  5. Rainie, Lee. “Americans’ Complicated Feelings about Social Media in an Era of Privacy Concerns.” Pew Research Center. March 27, 2018. Accessed June 08, 2018.
  6. “Social Media Fact Sheet.” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech. February 05,2018. Accessed June 08, 2018.
  7. Dolcourt, Jessica. “Samsung Galaxy Note 7 Recall: Everything You Still Need to Know about What’s Coming next.” CNET. January 23, 2017. Accessed June 08, 2018.

If you would like to read more, please check out my book “UX Fundamentals for Non-UX Professionals.”



Edward Stull
The Startup

User experience designer and researcher | author of UX Fundamentals for Non-UX Professionals