Our perceptions dictate our actions

Posted on under Today's research

We know from lots of past research (much of it in prior TRs) that we don’t ever see anything accurately. Now, however, a new study faces head-on the notion that not only is that true but that all previous experimental subjects in this field may have been victims of response bias.

What the researcher says: Most people think of vision as simply a function of information the eye gathers—what the eye alone sees. However, researchers have now found that vision is a little more complicated than that.

For nearly a decade, the lead author has published numerous studies showing that vision can change as a function of action—that vision is action-specific, as opposed to general purpose. Most famous among these experiments are the ones showing that when baseball players are hitting better, they see the ball as bigger and that when someone lacks fitness or is carrying a heavy backpack, they see a hill as steeper.

Now a new paper in Psychological Science faces head-on the notion that her experimental subjects have been victims of a psychological phenomenon called response bias. She employed a classic, action-specific experiment involving a video game familiar to children of the 80s: Pong.

Response bias happens when subjects guess or infer the purpose of an experiment, so they adjust their behaviors or answers—consciously or subconsciously. For example, a Psychology 101 student, familiar with how scientists run experiments, might volunteer as a study subject in which they are asked to wear a backpack, and guess the incline of a hill. They might infer, “I bet the hypothesis is that the backpack will affect how I see the slant of the hill,” so they might say the slant is 25 degrees, rather than 20.

So the author ran an old experiment with a new twist. In a game very much like Pong, a ball bounces across a screen, and participants use a joystick to block the ball with a paddle of varying sizes, making the task easier or harder. After each attempt, participants estimate the speed of the ball. In visual perception-speak, the “Pong effect” is when the ball appears faster when the paddle is smaller, even though the speed remains unchanged. The Pong effect supports Witt’s hypotheses about actions influencing vision.

For the paper, the author added post-experiment surveys to gather data on whether participants guessed the experiments’ purpose, and whether their inferences affected how they saw the ball.

Few guessed the nature of the experiment (Bigger paddle = ball appears slower). But, critically, the Pong effect showed up regardless of the participants’ level of insight into the experiments’ true purpose.

Between those who guessed the experiments’ purpose, and those who didn’t, “there was no systematic difference between those two groups,” she said. “The Pong effect still emerged—just as strong as in previous studies.”

“Perception is a fundamental process of the mind,” she said. “We are getting at core scientific knowledge of how the mind and the brain work.”

So what? If, as this paper shows, action has an effect on perception, it is also true that perception dictates choice and action. Different people will have different perceptions of any one phenomenon or set of data: one will see the hill as steep, another as gentle. One will see the data as dictating a particular choice and another will see the reverse.

What now? What this experiment—along with all the others that have been reported in TR over the years –clearly shows is the need for diversity in all important choice and decision-making areas. It also highlights the need to listen to the views and perceptions of from different genders and backgrounds before making an important political or business decision. Unfortunately, this is what happens less and less as we get engrossed in ourselves and are led by social media and advertising into our own particular narcissistic bubbles.

By Dr Bob Murray