What is top-down processing in psychology?

mind cogntion

At any given time, there are a lot of stimuli to process. The process of analyzing every observation, sound, and feeling we encounter in order to form a perception of the world can be very exhausting. Throughout the years, we have gathered so much data and constructed so many schemas that we are capable of recreating the things that we know best by thinking about them. Some experts assert that this is our way of processing information. Other experts claim and subscribe to the top-down processing theory.

Top-Down Processing: What Does It Mean?

Top-down processing involves starting with a general perception and moving to a more specific one. Our prior knowledge and expectations hugely influence these perceptions. By making use of what it knows, the brain helps fill in the blanks and predicts what will happen next.

Let us understand it using the example of a mango tree. If person A sees the top half of a mango tree branch, he/she usually has an idea of what the tree looks like despite the fact that the bottom half is not visible. His/her prior knowledge allows them to recognize what trees look like.

The top-down processing of information allows one to make sense of information received by their senses, working downward from general impressions down to specific details.

The top-down theories are hypothesis-driven, emphasizing the importance of higher mental processes like values, beliefs,  expectations, and social influences.

Why Do We Use Top-Down Processing?

Making sense of the environment can be facilitated by top-down processing, in a world that is filled with sensory experiences and information that is virtually limitless. New information is constantly being absorbed by our senses. We are experiencing a seemingly never-ending stream of sounds, sights, smells, tastes, and physical sensations at any given point in time. If we tried to focus on all these sensations simultaneously, each second would be overwhelming.

We can simplify our understanding of the world by using top-down processing. All the information our senses are receiving can be easily interpreted with the help of it. 

Once you begin acquiring information about your immediate environment, your initial impressions  (derived from previous experiences and patterns) affect how you interpret the specific details. Finding patterns in our environment can be useful when using this type of processing. These predispositions can, however, hinder us from perceiving things in a new and informed manner.


Top-down processing is influenced by many factors, including context and motivation. We expect something specific to happen in an event or situation based on the context, or circumstances within which it is perceived.

If person A is reading a blog about food or nutrition online. Perhaps he/she will come across some unfamiliar words. These words could be interpreted or perceived as related to food. It is also possible that motivation could lead him/her to interpret something in a specific way. For example, if person B is shown a series of ambiguous images when they are hungry. They might be more inclined to associate those images with food in that state of hunger.


It’s always best to explore a few examples in order to gain a deeper understanding of something. This phenomenon in action, top-down processing can be understood with the help of the Stroop Effect, Typos, Auditory Illusions, Visual illusion, etc.

For now, let us take up the Stroop Effect and Typos:

The Stroop Effect

Among the classic examples of top-down processing is the Stroop effect. A list of words is displayed in different colors to the participants in this task. After that, they are asked to find the name of the color of ink instead of the word itself. 

It’s interesting to note that participants make more errors when the meaning and color of the ink don’t match. So, for example, if the word blue is printed in green ink instead of blue ink, the participants will have a harder time. Top-down processing answers and explains why this task was so difficult for participants.

Participants or say the brain automatically recognizes/identifies the word before it can think about the specific characteristics of that word such as what ink color it’s written in. Reading the word aloud is more convenient than describing its color.


Sometimes it might happen that you craft an email to your superior, proofread it, and hit ‘send.’ It’s only after the email has gone into the nether sphere that you realize there were multiple typos.

Typos tend to escape notice by most individuals. It’s not their fault. It is because writing is such a high-level task, the brain tricks the eyes into reading what it thinks it should see. 

Mistakes are automatically filled in and details are corrected without you even noticing so you can focus on the more difficult task of converting sentences into complex ideas.


Our perception of the world is ultimately based on our set of perceptions— prior experiences, expectations, and emotional responses. These perceptions then inform our opinion. We hope that our explanation and examples helped you to understand top-down processing.