Set (psychology)

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In psychology, a set is a group of expectations that shape experience by making people especially sensitive to specific kinds of information. A perceptual set, also called perceptual expectancy, is a predisposition to perceive things in a certain way.[1] Perceptual sets occur in all the different senses.[2] They can be long term, such as a special sensitivity to hearing one's own name in a crowded room, or short term, as in the ease with which hungry people notice the smell of food.[3] A mental set is a framework for thinking about a problem.[4] It can be shaped by habit or by desire.[5] Mental sets can make it easy to solve a class of problem, but attachment to the wrong mental set can inhibit problem-solving and creativity.[4][6]


Perception can be shaped by "top-down" processes such as drives and expectations. An effect of these factors is that people are particularly sensitive to perceive certain things, detecting them from weaker stimuli than otherwise.[7] A simple demonstration of the effect involved very brief presentations of non-words such as "sael". Subjects who were told to expect words about animals read it as "seal", but others who were expecting boat-related words read it as "sail".[3]

Sets can be created by motivation and so can result in people interpreting ambiguous situations so that they see what they want to see.[7] For instance, a person's experience of the events in a sports match can be biased if they strongly support one of the teams.[8] In one experiment, students were allocated to pleasant or unpleasant tasks by a computer. They were told that either a number or a letter would flash on the screen to say whether they were going to taste an orange juice drink or an unpleasant-tasting health drink. In fact, an ambiguous figure was flashed on screen, which could either be read as the letter B or the number 13. When the letters were associated with the pleasant task, subjects were more likely to perceive a letter B, and when letters were associated with the unpleasant task they tended to perceive a number 13.[1]

Perceptual sets have been demonstrated in many social contexts. People who are primed to think of someone as "warm" are more likely to perceive a variety of positive characteristics in them, than if the word "warm" is replaced by "cold". When someone has a reputation for being funny, an audience are more likely to find them amusing.[3] Individual's perceptual sets reflect their own personality traits. For example, people with an aggressive personality are quicker to correctly identify aggressive words or situations.[3]


Mental sets are subconscious tendencies to approach a problem in a particular way,[6] either helping or interfering in the discovery of a solution.[6] They are shaped by past experiences, habits,[9] and, most importantly, culture.[10] These sets also exist as parts of our cognitive processes although they do not always enter consciousness.[6] This is demonstrated in the way bookkeepers can balance their book without being aware of using addition or subtraction.[11] An inappropriate mental set hampers the solution of straightforward problems.[3] This could happen if the set contains a false assumption or a belief that is not correct.[6] For example, when people are asked, "When a United States plane carrying Canadian passengers crashes in international waters, where should the survivors be buried?" the phrasing of the question suggests that it is a problem of international law. People who interpret the statement with this mental set will miss the fact that survivors would not need to be buried.[6] A specific form of mental set is functional fixedness, in which someone fails to see the variety of uses to which an object can be put.[3][6][9] An example would be someone who needs a weight but fails to use an easily available hammer because their mental set is to think of a hammer as for a specific purpose.[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Weiten, Wayne (17 December 2008). Psychology: Themes and Variations. Cengage Learning. p. 193. ISBN 978-0-495-60197-5. Retrieved 24 March 2011.
  2. ^ Sonderegger, Theo (16 October 1998). Psychology. John Wiley and Sons. pp. 43–44. ISBN 978-0-8220-5327-9. Retrieved 24 March 2011.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Hardy, Malcolm; Heyes, Steve (2 December 1999). Beginning Psychology. Oxford University Press. pp. 24–27. ISBN 978-0-19-832821-6. Retrieved 24 March 2011.
  4. ^ a b Galotti, Kathleen M. (5 February 2009). Cognitive Psychology: In and Out of the Laboratory. Cengage Learning. pp. 341–344. ISBN 978-0-17-644065-7. Retrieved 25 March 2011.
  5. ^ Sharma, Ram Nath; Chandra, S.S. (1 January 2003). General Psychology. Atlantic Publishers & Dist. p. 157. ISBN 978-81-269-0303-0. Retrieved 25 March 2011.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h Bruno, Frank Joe (2 August 2002). Psychology: a self-teaching guide. John Wiley and Sons. pp. 127–128. ISBN 978-0-471-44395-7. Retrieved 25 March 2011.
  7. ^ a b Coon, Dennis; Mitterer, John O. (29 December 2008). Introduction to Psychology: Gateways to Mind and Behavior. Cengage Learning. pp. 171–172. ISBN 978-0-495-59911-1. Retrieved 24 March 2011.
  8. ^ Block, J. R.; Yuker, Harold E. (1 October 2002). Can You Believe Your Eyes?: Over 250 Illusions and Other Visual Oddities. Robson. pp. 173–174. ISBN 978-1-86105-586-6. Retrieved 24 March 2011.
  9. ^ a b Mangal, S. K. (1 August 2007). Essentials of educational psychology. PHI Learning Pvt. Ltd. pp. 393–394. ISBN 978-81-203-3055-9. Retrieved 25 March 2011.
  10. ^ Klimczak-Pawlak, Agata (2014). Towards the Pragmatic Core of English for European Communication: The Speech Act of Apologising in Selected Euro-Englishes. Cham: Springer. p. 49. ISBN 9783319035567.
  11. ^ Hergenhahn, B.R. (2009). An Introduction to the History of Psychology, Sixth Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning. p. 284. ISBN 9780495506218.

Further reading[edit]