What Is Top-Down Processing?

How Our Perception Is Influenced by What We Know

Top down processing
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Top-down processing is when we form our perceptions starting with a larger object, concept, or idea before working our way toward more detailed information. In other words, top-down processing happens when we work from the general to the specific—the big picture to the tiny details. In top-down processing, your abstract impressions can influence the information that you gather through your five senses.

How Existing Knowledge Influences Perception

Top-down processing is also known as conceptually-driven processing since your perceptions are influenced by expectations, existing beliefs, and understanding. In some cases, you are aware of these influences, but in other instances, this process occurs without conscious awareness.

For example, imagine that you are driving down an unfamiliar street and you see a sign for a convenience store. The sign has several missing letters, but you're still able to read it. Why? Because you use top-down processing and rely on your existing knowledge to make an educated guess about what the sign says.

In a world where we are surrounded by virtually limitless sensory experiences and information, top-down processing can help us to quickly make sense of the environment. This type of processing can be useful when we are looking for patterns in our environment, but it can also hinder our ability to perceive things in new and different ways.

Our bias toward viewing objects in a certain way based on our experiences, beliefs, and expectations, is known as a perceptual set.

Factors That Influence Top-Down Processing

A number of things can influence top-down processing, including context and motivation. The context, or circumstances, in which an event or object is perceived can influence what we expect to find in that particular situation.

If you are reading an article about food and nutrition, for example, you might interpret a word you're not familiar with as something related to food.

Motivation can also make you more likely to interpret something in a particular way. For example, if you were shown a series of ambiguous images, you might be more motivated to perceive them as food-related when you're hungry.

An Example of Top-Down Processing

One classic example of top-down processing in action is a phenomenon known as the Stroop effect. In this task, color words are printed in other colors. So, for example, the word "Red" might be printed in blue, the word "Pink" might be printed in white, and so on. Participants are asked to say the color of the word but not the actual word itself. When reaction times are measured, people are much slower at saying the correct color when the color and the word are not the same.

Top-down processing explains why this task is so difficult. People automatically recognize the word before they think about the color, making it easier to read the word aloud rather than to say the color of the word.

Sources:

Bernstein, DA. Essentials of psychology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth; 2011.

Stroop, JR. Studies of interference in serial verbal reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology. 1935;28:643-662.

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