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When marketing common sense has reached its limits, call a Semiotician | Perception is not what you perceive it to be!

True story: A young Brazilian girl went on a cultural exchange trip to the US. The first morning of her trip, her host family gave her coffee. She took one sip of the coffee and suddenly broke into tears. Her hosts were dumbfounded and at a loss.

What had happened? How did a cup of coffee get the girl to cry? The conversation that followed revealed that the Brazilian girl had found the American coffee to be of a far inferior quality, as compared to what she was used to in Brazil. And since her hosts had served her such bad coffee, what else could she infer but that they didn’t like her?

Stories of cross-cultural encounters, such as this, bring to the forefront the challenges of interpretation and, hence, perception formation. Yet perception formation gets taken for granted. Because we believe that having been members of a culture for so long, surely we couldn’t possibly come across such unanticipated instances of misunderstanding.

Well, here is another story of a cross-cultural encounter of a different kind that took place in India.

And again, a true story: Recently, a young behavioural economist had gone to teach a class of senior officers in the state administration, to introduce theories of behavioural psychology and the concept of the ‘nudge’.

As part of the same, he set them various tasks, at which the senior officers either failed or performed poorly. Following this, the officers complained to their superiors: they wanted this young trainer removed. And their grievance? That the young trainer had set them difficult tasks as a way to humiliate them and, thus, get the upper hand. The officers interpreted it as an act of disrespect from a junior to his seniors. So they saw their desire for corrective action as only a reasonable response to the situation.

Marketing folks would understand these two stories through the lens of consumer behaviour, and thus, see them as examples of perception or indeed mis-perception. And if faced with such troubles within their sphere of work, they might possibly call upon a marketing psychologist to take apart the situation and understand how the perception was formed.

However, choosing to consult with just a marketing psychologist comes with two limitations. One, they solely attribute response to the sensory stimuli (words, visuals, touch, smell, sounds, multi-modal behaviour) processed in the moment. Two, they read the situation on only an individual level.

In contrast, a Semiotician can help fill the gaps in the understanding of perception, given that a Semiotician can offer a broader, more comprehensive explanation for what drives people to behave as they do.

Semiotics greatly values the role of learning, context, culture and social consensus in driving behaviour. Therefore, it argues that perception isn’t formed only by the processing of sensory stimuli that filter through into the mind/brain. It is mainly formed by interpretation and meaning making. Similarly, how do emotional responses get activated, except through interpretation and meaning making?

Explained further, after we are exposed to sensory stimuli, they filter through our attention as signs that we need to interpret using not just our minds but also our memory.

This sign interpretation takes place through the use of labels, concepts and narratives that have been learnt over a period of time; Semiosis not only helps make sense from nonsense, but also helps figure out what something really means.

And successful sign interpretation can’t just be attributed to a memory storage that is purely based on rote learning and repetition; as psychologists might suggest through their study of responses to sensory stimuli.

In addition to repeated habits and procedures, our memory storage is also based on subjectively learned concepts and cultural experiences that frequently reorder and reconstruct how we perceive things.

All such learnings are imbibed after validation by the social consensus. And given how different cultures encourage different ways of thinking, the behaviour of every individual gets ordered by what they know to be right.

Understood in the context of the two examples we began with: both the Brazilian girl and the senior officers employed culturally learnt, emotional reasoning to interpret the actions of the people with whom they were interacting.

Hence, to the Brazilian girl, serving coffee of inferior quality equalled a dislike of her. And to the officers, having them fail the tests equalled disrespect for one’s seniors. Additionally, they relied on group consensus to validate their interpretation, before they took collective action to complain against the young teacher.

Comprehending perception requires a ‘slow-motion-replay’ of the event, or put Semiotically, a detailed decoding of the stimulus; an effort needed to separate the sensory effects from the Semiosis viz the interpretation and meaning making.

Now that we understand that the popularly applied psychological understanding of perception is incomplete, and that perception formation includes Semiosis, how does it change the way we study perception, and utilise the concept for better positioning, branding and advertising? Stay tuned.