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Selective Perception

People’s perceptions of the intent and potential impact of new law (legislation, court rulings, etc.) are selective and vary with socioeconomic, cultural, and demographic variables. The unique pattern of people’s needs, attitudes, habits, and values derived through socialization determines what they will selectively attend to, what they will selectively interpret, and what they will selectively act upon. People in general will be more receptive to new ideas if they are related to their interests, consistent with their attitudes, congruent with their beliefs, and supportive of their values (Baker, 2005). Differing perceptions of the purpose of a law may hinder change. For example, in India the law provides for widespread distribution of family-planning information and supplies. But many Indian villagers reject the use of contraception because they perceive the law’s intent is to stop birth completely. In the United States, the early attempts to fluoridate city water supplies met with perceptions that a “communist conspiracy” was behind these efforts, and as a result, they were resisted in many communities.

The way a law is written also affects perception. The Brown v. Board of Education decision is again a good illustration. Calling for desegregation “with all deliberate speed,” as this decision did, was too vague to produce meaningful change. “Ambiguity always lends itself to individualized perceptions” (Rodgers and Bullock, 1972:199), and individuals will interpret and perceive the meaning of the law in a way they consider most advantageous in the context of social changes, economic trends, and integration into the larger community locally, nationally, and internationally (Engel and Engel, 2011).

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