Top-Down Processing and Perception

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.

Importance of Top-Down Processing

Why is top-down processing important? We are surrounded by so much information that it would simply be impossible to attend to and process every single detail. Top-down processing works to help simply our understanding of the world.

The broad, general impressions you gather upon first glance may then help influence the more finer details that you focus on as you take in more information about your environment. Consider just how much information you might be inundated by at any given moment.

You are surrounded by a plethora of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures, and physical sensations. If you focused equally on each and every one of these sensations, you would be overwhelmed.

Processing information from the top-down allows us to make sense of information that has already been brought in by the senses, working downward from initial impressions down to lower-level senses.

Existing Knowledge and Its Influence

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.

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.

Benefits and Weaknesses

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.

Influences On This Process

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.

Top-Down Processing In Action

In order to better understand how top-down processing works, it can be helpful to explore a few examples of this phenomenon in action.

The Stroop Effect

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.


When you are reading a block of text, you might find yourself not even noticing typos and other text errors. As you read along, the preceding words provide context about what you can expect to read next. Because of this, your brain often simply fills in missing details and corrects errors as you read so that you do not even notice such mistakes.

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  • 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.