Seeing is believing: even though what you see is not necessarily what you get

Seeing is believing: even though what you see is not necessarily what you get – psychological factors in perception

Paul Chance

Seeing Is Believing Even though what you see is not necessarily what you get.

SEEING IS BELIEVING, so they say. What they mean is that you can believe what you see for yourself, whereas you can’t always trust what others tell you. After all, if you can’t trust your own eyes, what can you trust?

But our eyes do deceive us from time to time. All of us are now and then fooled into seeing one thing, when something else is actually present. Just how we see that something else is quite a mystery, but psychologists have shown that the human factor plays a large role.

One thing that affects our vision is motivation. Several studies have shown that hunger, for instance, affects perception. In one study researchers showed sailors some ambiguous figures and asked them what they saw. Sailors who hadn’t had anything to eat for many hours saw with their bellies. To them, an elongated ink smudge was a fork, a swirl a fried onion. This intelligence will come as no surprise to dieters, who are used to mistaking a rose vase for a strawberry soda and live in a world filled with objects that momentarily disguise themselves as hot fudge sundaes and Snickers bars.

Another kind of hunger also makes us see what isn’t there. “Twenty times a day,” wrote psychologist William James in 1892, “the lover, perambulating the streets with his preoccupied fancy, will think he perceives his idol’s bonnet before him.” The fact that lovers see differently from the rest of us is also illustrated by the expression, “Love is blind.” No optician can correct this malady, but marriage sometimes effects a cure.

Poverty is another kind of motivational state that affects perception. In a classic study, Jerome Bruner and Cecile Goodman showed children circles of various sizes and asked them to pick those that were the same sizes as certain coins. The children consistently overestimated the sizes of the coins, but poor children chose circles that were much too large. A quarter looks bigger to the poor than it does to the wealthy. One wonders if rich children would show the same bias toward hundred dollar bills.

Past learning also affects our vision. For instance, the chances are good that you did not notice the typographical error in the previous sentence. People regularly see words spelled correctly when in fact they are not. This is the so-called “proofreader’s illusion,” merely one example of the principle that what we know affects what we see, a principle that gives new meaning to the expression “Seeing is believing.”

It’s surprising how much influence our beliefs have on what we see. In another famous experiment, Bruner and Leo Postman flashed pictures of playing cards on a screen for brief periods. Some of the cards were ordinary, but some had colors opposite to their suit, such as a black six of hearts or a red two of spades. Oddly enough, the bizarre cards didn’t trouble the students. To them, the black six of hearts was either a perfectly ordinary black six of spades or an equally ordinary red six of hearts. When the students got to see the cards a bit longer, they saw a kind of compromise: A red three of spades became purple.

What we see in other people’s faces also depends upon what we know, or think we know, about people. When researchers showed people a set of photographic portraits and asked them to set aside those of Jews, the guesses were not very accurate. The researchers found that those who were anti-Semitic weren’t any better at the task than others, but they set aside more photographs. To their prejudiced eyes, more people looked Jewish.

These experiments are interesting, but the real importance of understanding the psychological factors in perception is better seen outside the laboratory. On July 3, 1988, United States sailors shot down a civilian aircraft, killing 290 people. There was apparently no failure in radar equipment. How, then, could sailors have watched a radar screen and seen a plane descending, as if for attack, when in fact the instrument showed the plane was climbing? Seeing is believing.

COPYRIGHT 1989 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group