Encoding is the process by which we translate information collected from the outside world by our sensory organs into mental representations. We tend to think of our eyes, ears, and other senses as analogous to video recorders—faithfully translating the outside world into mental products inside our head. However, encoding involves construction of what must be out there in addition to faithful duplication of what is indeed out there. While there are various reasons for this constructive process, the most important reason is that information from the environment can often be interpreted in multiple ways, and the mind must choose the most likely meaning to enable us to respond appropriately.
The mind solves this problem by relying on context to adjust the incoming information so that it conforms to the most likely interpretation of what is being seen, heard, tasted, and so forth.
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As an example of this constructive process, think back on a time when someone said something to you that you didn’t completely hear. You might have asked the person to repeat the statement, only to realize that you did not need the statement to be repeated. You might have berated yourself for asking for clarification too quickly, thinking that you actually heard the person the first time. In all probability, however, you did not hear the complete sentence when it was first spoken but were able to reconstruct it very rapidly after the fact. You could achieve this later reconstruction because once the entire utterance was complete, you had more information at your disposal to clarify what was originally heard. As a consequence, your mind could now replay it for you properly, without the added noise or confusion that caused you not to hear it the first time.
This example illustrates how constructive encoding can allow us to make sense of a world that might otherwise be too noisy or confusing. Nevertheless, constructive encoding has its pitfalls as well. Because most constructive processes at encoding are unconscious and inaccessible, we are often oblivious to their effects and tend to believe that what we see and hear represents objective reality. In actual fact, people interpret information based on their personal experiences and idiosyncratic understanding of the world. Thus, two people can walk away from the same event and occasionally hear or see different things, particularly if the people come from different cultural backgrounds.
Despite these potential costs of constructive encoding processes, it is worth keeping in mind that the goal of encoding is to create a clear and accurate representation of reality, and evidence suggests that people are very good at this process most of the time. Indeed, people can sometimes form reasonably accurate representations of others after viewing just a few seconds of behavior.
- Kunda, Z. (1999). Social cognition: Making sense of people. Cambridge: MIT Press.
- Zebrowitz, L. A. (1997). Reading faces: Window to the soul? Boulder, CO: Westview Press.