Perceptual positions – White Paper
The notion of perceptual positions is one that is taught in the field of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), and it describes how the point of view that we adopt in any given situation can influence our perception.
How the point of view influences perceptions
In 1978, a landmark paper on this topic was published by Shelley Taylor, Ph.D and Susan Fiske, Ph.D. Taylor and Fiske found that the “point of view influences perceptions of causality, such that a person who engulfs your visual field is seen as more impactful in a situation…imagining actions from the perspective of a particular character leads to empathetic inference and recall of information best learned from that person’s perspectives.”
In one of their experiments, six observers watched a dialogue between two people while seated either behind one of the individuals, (Person A and Person B), or on the sidelines between the two. In this particular study, the observers were actually the experimental subjects, or participants, and the two people in the center, Person A and Person B, were “confederates” of the experimenter, meaning that they were members of the research team playing a particular role.
All of the observers watched the conversation simultaneously, so the only informational difference was the visual salience of the two people holding the discussion. That is, everybody listened to the same conversation at the same time. For people sitting behind Person A, looking into the face of Person B, the most salient person was B. On the other hand, for people sitting behind Person B, observing Person A, the most salient person was A. And for people sitting on the sidelines, A and B were equally salient.
What were the results?
Well, despite the fact that everyone heard the same conversation, Taylor and Fiske found that observers tended to rate the person in their visual field as having set the tone of the conversation, having been the one who determined the type of information exchanged, and having caused the other person’s responses. That is, observers of Person A saw A as more influential or causal. Observers of Person B saw B as more causal. And observers on the sideline gave ratings that fell in between the two other groups.
Why should we care about these findings? Why does this matter?
Well, if we want to make fair and accurate judgments about what led somebody to behave in a certain way, or who’s responsible, or, in the case of a crime, even who’s guilty, then we probably don’t want to be influenced by where we happen to be looking at the moment that we’re making the judgment, and we sure don’t want to be influenced without knowing it. And yet, if we’re not careful, this is exactly what can happen. Let me give you an example.
Research by Dan Lassiter, Ph.D and his colleagues on false confessions and videotaped police interrogations has found that when the camera angle focuses on the suspect, people are twice as likely to see the suspect as guilty than when the camera is focused on both the suspect and interrogator. And when it comes to preventing false confessions — that is, confessions when the suspect is actually innocent — the best practice of all may be to focus mainly on the interrogator because it makes that person seem more responsible for pressuring the suspect into a false confession.
Because of this research, New Zealand adopted a national policy that videotaped police interrogations have to focus on both the suspect and the interrogator, so that the video is as fair as possible, as even-handed as possible.
An NLP perspective on perceptual positions
In NLP, perceptual positions refer to the skill of adopting more points of view than our own. This ability to see things from different points of view is a key skill in understanding people and situations better, and it can dramatically improve the way we communicate with others, helping us to get better results.
The oldest predecessor of perceptual positions is a very simple idea: “Before you criticize someone, walk a mile in his shoes.” In other words, we can’t really understand someone until we’ve experienced what it’s like to be in his/her situation. In NLP, this example would be a form of “2nd perceptual position” – perception “as if” from another’s point of view.
NLP is not only concerned with seeing things from other points of view (visual representation), but also with understanding the feelings involved (kinesthetic) – what another person may feel from his/her point of view in a particular situation, what we would hear if we were to put ourselves in another person’s shoes (auditory), and to a lesser extent olfactory (smell) and gustatory (taste) sensory experience.
All people have the capability to experience and use more than one perceptual position. When in a perceptual position, a person internally represents the world, events – past, present or future – and relationships in an associated way from within that position.
Below are the four main perceptual positions as described and used in neuro-linguistic programming. Each of these are characterized by specific physical, cognitive and linguistic patterns. These patterns are summarized in the following descriptions.
1st position: Self, experiencing from one’s own eyes.
2nd position: Other, experiencing from the eyes of another person.
3rd position: External viewer, from any other position, totally dissociated.
4th position: From the perspective of the system, associated in the perspective of the whole system.
The first position is you, standing in your own physical space, in your own habitual body posture. When fully associated in first position, you will use words like “me”, “I”, and “myself” when referring to your own feelings, perceptions and ideas.
In first position, you are going through the experience of communication from your own perspective: seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting and smelling everything that is going on around you and inside of you in that experience from an associated perspective. If you are truly in first position, you will not see yourself, but you will be yourself looking out at the world through your own eyes, ears, etc. You will be fully associated in your own body and “map of the world”.
A person who often finds himself/herself living in the first position is less likely to accept other people’s points of view, and often tries to lead and influence others to accept his/her point of view.
The second position is being able to assume another person’s perspective within the interaction. (If there is more than one other person in the interaction, there may be multiple ‘second positions’). This is a temporary, information gathering position in which you shift to another person’s point of view. You see, hear, feel, taste and smell what the communication is like from that person’s point of view. This is a position in which you are dissociated from yourself and associated into another person. You will address your ‘first position’ self as “you” (as opposed to “I” or “me”), and in general you will be using “second person” language.
Temporarily assuming another person’s position is a great way of building empathy and evaluating how effective you are on your side of the communication. However, people who associate themselves too often in the second position tend to put the needs of others first. Some examples could be: hospital doctors working impossibly long hours, secretaries to high-profile bosses, mothers to young children, head teachers and managers of large companies – all tend to drive themselves through tiredness, depression, even illness because of their beliefs about what their role entails and a habit of putting the needs of the company/client/children first. There can even come a point where they don’t even notice how they are feeling. This is potentially dangerous, as it can produce self-defeating attempts to take care of themselves indirectly and in short-term ways – such as by smoking, overeating or drinking alcohol – rather than in direct and long-term ones.
The third position, or “observer” position, puts you temporarily outside of the communication loop in order to gather information, as though you were a witness to, and not a participant in, the interaction.
In this position you will see, hear, feel, taste and smell what the communication loop is like from the position of an interested but neutral observer. You will use “third person” language, such as “she” and “he”, when referring to the persons you are observing (including the one that looks, sounds and acts like you).
This position gives you valuable information about the balance of behaviors present in the communication process and allows you to operate naturally from the position of objectivity.
The fourth position involves a synthesis of the other three perspectives, creating the sense of “being the whole system”. It involves an identification with the system itself, producing the experience of being part of a collective, characterized by language such as “we”.
The fourth position is essential for producing a “group mind” or “team spirit”.
Examples of IntenCheck text analysis – Comparing mission statements
In order to show the difference between texts that use different dominant perceptual positions, we have analyzed and compared the following three mission statements:
Text 1: Dole Food Company
“Dole Food Company, Inc. is committed to supplying the consumer and our customers with the finest, high-quality products and to leading the industry in nutrition research and education. Dole supports these goals with a corporate philosophy of adhering to the highest ethical conduct in all its business dealings, treatment of its employees, and social and environmental policies.”
Text 2: Ecolab
“Our mission is to be the leading global innovator, developer and provider of cleaning, sanitation and maintenance products, systems, and services. As a team, we will achieve aggressive growth and fair return for our shareholders. We will accomplish this by exceeding the expectations of our customers while conserving resources and preserving the quality of the environment.”
Text 3: Get rolling website
“I am a committed recreational skater’s advocate. I will do everything in my power to ensure that novices achieve the most positive first experience possible. This means encouraging them to buy the best equipment they can afford and to learn the basic skills, especially how to use the heel brake. To fight skate bans due to congested popular trails, I will help more experienced skaters build their speed and hill skills so they can train on a wider variety of trails without the risk of alienating other users. I will continue to encourage all skaters to improve their skills so they can adopt a well-rounded inline lifestyle.”
|Text 1: Dole Food Company||
|Text 2: Ecolab||
|Text 3: Get rolling website||
The texts above each use different dominant perceptual positions to communicate their message.
The first text is intended to be perceived as if it was written by a neutral source, unrelated to the company that is being described (even though it’s obviously written by a person within the company). By using the third perceptual position, that of objectivity, while using many words which are perceived as positive, the text helps communicate a feeling of trustworthiness and reliability at the unconscious level.
The second text makes use of the fourth perceptual position – the perspective of the system – to communicate the company’s intended message. By using words such as ‘we’, ‘our’, ‘team’, the message communicated at the unconscious level is that of togetherness, team spirit, shared values and a common direction from all the parts that make up the whole of the company.
The third text uses the first perceptual position – that perspective of a leader – to communicate the attitude and actions of leadership that the author wants to be associated with him. By using words such as ‘I am…’, ‘I will…’ the attention is on the self (the leader) and on the effects that his actions will have on others’ results.
- Bodenhamer, Bob G. & L. Michael Hall. The User’s Manual for the Brain (Vol 1).
- Taylor, Shelley E. & Susan T. Fiske. Social Cognition.
- Lassiter, G. Daniel & Christian A. Meissner. Police Interrogations and False Confessions: Current Research, Practice, and Policy.
- Jago, Wendy & Ian McDermott. The NLP Coach: A comprehensive guide to personal well-being & professional success.