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MOTIVATED VISUAL PERCEPTION:
HOW WE SEE WHAT WE WANT TO SEE
Presented to the Faculty of the Graduate School
of Cornell University
In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
Emily E. Balcetis
© 2006 Emily E. Balcetis
MOTIVATED VISUAL PERCEPTION:
HOW WE SEE WHAT WE WANT TO SEEEmily E. Balcetis, Ph. D.
Cornell University 2006 In 2001, a U.S. nuclear submarine surfaced underneath a Japanese fishing vessel, causing it to sink—9 died. In 1999, 41 bullets fired by 4 New York police officers hit and killed Amidou Diallo, who pulled from his pocket a wallet rather than what the police thought was a gun. In both tragedies, one might ask how these central actors could have failed to see what was plainly visible. With this work, I ask how perceptual systems represent the surrounding world if not in a veridical manner. I propose that the perceptual representations of which perceivers are consciously aware are colored by nonconscious motivational forces. Motivations, including wishes, dissonance reduction, and visceral needs, bias visual perception.
Three streams of research examined the ways in which motivations constrain perceptual processing. The first stream demonstrated that people’s wishes biased the resolution of visual ambiguity. In 5 studies, participants shown an ambiguous visual figure reported seeing the desired interpretation. This finding was affirmed by unobtrusive and implicit measures of perception including eyetracking, lexical decision response times, and experimental manipulations.
In the second stream, I explored whether the motivation to reduce cognitive dissonance biased perception and assisted in the regulation of psychological states. In 2 studies, participants performed an aversive task under high or low choice conditions. Participants saw components of their environment in less extreme ways in order to reduce dissonance. Those experiencing high choice perceived distances to travel as shorter and slopes to climb as shallower.
In the third stream, 5 studies showed that desires such as hunger, thirst, and general preferences led to a narrowed focus of attention on a desired object. Narrowly focusing attention reduced estimates of distance. Participants saw desired objects as closer than less desired objects.
I end by discussing the implications for marketing, self- screening in early cancer detection and relationship satisfaction among other applied domains. This work explores the limits of motivations, testing whether they cross the boundary separating how people think about their world and how they see it.
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCHEmily Balcetis was born in Omaha, Nebraska then traveled to the far reaches of the center of the state to attend the University of Nebraska at Kearney, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Music Performance. Afterwards, she set her sites on a coastal state, pursuing a Ph.D. in social and personality psychology at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. She will begin her professional academic career at The Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.
iiiTo My Best Friends: Mom and Dad
ACKNOWLEDGMENTSAlthough this thesis focuses on times when we fail to see the world for how it truly is, there certainly are instances when we see the world in full clarity. The view I get when looking back on the contributions of my collaborators is just that—undeniably, unambiguously clear. As my primary advisor, David Dunning has orchestrated a premier experience that I am honored to say was my graduate training. Because of his versatility and enthusiasm in the classroom and his precision and commitment to scholarly merit in the lab, Dave is among the most malleable and, as a result, valuable teachers. He supervised my work with the dynamic combination of directed supervision and autonomy, changing the relative weights of each in perfect synchrony with my growing abilities while in graduate school. Beyond his mastery in teaching and empirical rigor, his waggish creativity rivals those of any top psychologist. I thank him for sharing his intellect and his humor, for his encouragement and inviting demeanor, and for the long leash he gave me.
I would also like to acknowledge the mentoring and support generously offered from other members of my graduate committee.
Tom Gilovich has cultivated the ability to distill any piece of work in any field of psychology down to its essence, and use this as an ingredient for some of the most flavorful questions, colorful insights, and impressive displays of academic cookery I’ve sampled. Melissa Ferguson is a laudable role model for any junior scholar searching for the successful combination of integrity, scholarly merit, amazing productivity, and personal kindness. And beyond her intellectual v guidance, I thank her for her friendship. Michael Spivey represents the spirit of integration that marks the future of our science. His expertise lies not only in cognitive and social science, philosophy, and linguistics, but also in the intersection of all these areas. He pushes these fields towards a union that is required for great advances.
I thank graduate student Rick Dale for the initial push in the direction of perception. In addition, I extend my appreciation to Travis Carter, Joyce Ehrlinger, Richard Eibach, Lisa Libby, and Mike Wojnowicz for their indispensable wisdom and generous natures both on this project and outside of the lab. Many thanks to Clayton Critcher, Karlene Hanko, Yoel Inbar, Samantha Larimer, Jane Risen, and Nora Williams for their help on this work and their reassurance.
I am indebted to my very talented and relentless RArmy of undergraduate researchers. I owe them for their time, dedication, energy, intelligence, and creative ingenuity throughout many years of hard work. This group includes but is not limited to Kathy Deng, Kevin Destefan, Chelsea Finn, Agata Gluszek, Lorraine Ricci, Mike VanWert, and Steven Zhang. I am proud to consider them among my closest friends and my Ithaca family.
Finally, I would like to extend my thanks to the massage therapists at the Finger Lakes School of Massage without whose magical fingers my aching neck and tired hands would have given up long before I finished writing this thesis.
The research in Chapters 2, 3, and 4 was supported financially by National Institute of Mental Health Grant RO1 56072, awarded to David Dunning.
THE WINDOW THROUGH WHICH PEOPLE SEE THEIR WORLD: AN
INTRODUCTION TO MOTIVATED PERCEPTIONBefore a submarine surfaces, the surrounding waters are searched by sonar. If clear, the sub rises to periscope depth to visually survey the waters. After visual inspection, the submarine rises to the surface. Given this procedure, it was a surprising tragedy when, in 2001, a U.S. nuclear submarine surfaced underneath a large Japanese fishing vessel off the coast of Honolulu. The collision ripped open the boat's engine room, flooding the vessel, causing it to sink within minutes. Aboard the Japanese fishing trawler was a crew of 20 in addition to 2 teachers and 13 students from a fishery vocational school. Although many reached the lifeboats, 4 students, 2 teachers, and 3 crew members did not and died in the tragedy (Marquis, 2001).
In February 1999, 41 bullets were fired by 4 New York police officers that hit and killed Amidou Diallo, an unarmed immigrant from West Africa. When police officers ordered Diallo to stop, he reached into his pocket, producing an object that later turned out to be a wallet. The police defendants maintained that in this situation they acted on the information available to protect themselves from danger.
In the end, the officers were acquitted as a jury was convinced these officers actually saw the object as a gun (McFadden & Roane, 1999).
In both tragedies, it is difficult to imagine how these central actors missed what can be considered such obvious signals of upcoming disaster. Given the regimented safeguards submarines employ for surfacing, how is it possible that the Japanese fishing ship, 1 half of the size of the US nuclear submarine, could have been overlooked by visual inspection? How could the Navy periscope operator have failed to see what was plainly visible? How could each of the 4 police officers have mistaken the leather wallet for a loaded weapon? How could they have seen the object for something so different than what it really was?
I. The Perceptual Dilemma Perceptual systems face a dilemma: the world bombards perceptual systems with a wealth information at any given time, yet the systems’ abilities to process this rich world are limited. To combat this dilemma, perceptual systems enlist the assistance of a regiment of tools and strategies. In doing so, systems often create perceptual experiences that are inaccurate reconstructions of reality. My interest is to survey some of tools and strategies perceptual systems employ to assist in information processing and examine the consequences for biased perceptions of reality. I explore one specific tool shown to shape, sculpt, and mold other experiences in profound ways; I examine the influence of motivation on perception.
To be sure, the environment showers sensory systems with much more input than limited attentional resources can process. To sort relevant information from less relevant types, one tool perceptual systems use are filters. Unfortunately, as might have happened for the submarine periscope operator, filters can fail, leading to blindness of key elements of the environment. For instance, pilots in a flight simulator crashed planes when they focused their attention on the multi-component console at the expense of information suggesting the 2 rapid approach of the runway (Haines, 1991). In addition, when engaged in a face-to-face discussion, approximately half of participants did not notice that the person with whom they were speaking was replaced by another person (Levin, Simons, Angelone, & Chabris, 2002). Given the wealth of information environments offer, the visual system must choose to attend to some types of information at the expense of others. What this suggests is that all information is not equal. Some information is powerful enough to pass through a filter, thereby capturing and holding attention while other information is missed.
The dramatic course of action that led to the shooting of Amidou Diallo prompted researchers to ask why the police officers saw only one interpretation—the wrong interpretation—of the object rather than recognize its ambiguity. Among other factors tested in experimental paradigms, active race-based stereotypes contributed to the miscategorization of objects; a tool was often misidentified as a gun when held by an African American target (Correll, Park, Judd, & Wittenbrink, 2002, 2004). In addition, contexts such as visual backgrounds impact the speed (Boyce & Pollatsek, 1992; Boyce, Pollatsek & Rayner, 1989) and accuracy (Biederman, Mezzanotte, & Rabinowitz, 1982) of object identification. Prior exposure to images (Bugelski & Alampay, 1961; Leeper, 1935) and previous strains of thought (Balcetis & Dale, 2003, 2006) also bias what people see when they view objects with multiple resolutions.
With this current work, I explore the tools perceptual systems use to make sense of a dense and taxing world. I investigate the 3 systematic biases on perception that lead people to see their surroundings without complete accuracy. Certainly, contexts and previous experiences play an active role in directing perception.
However, I intend to expand this body of work to examine how psychological states shape perception in a similar manner.
Specifically, I propose that psychological states such as motivations regulate perception. I explore such motivations as wishful thinking, the goal to reduce cognitive dissonance, and visceral need states.
In addition, I examine the downstream consequences of motivated perception. In doing so, I suggest why perceptual systems might organize information without complete precision. Biased perception, I argue, might allow people to regulate psychological states in addition to serving an adaptive function.
Beyond demonstrating that motivations sculpt perceptual processing, I explore a variety of tasks implicated in perception.
Without a doubt, there are many tasks perceptual systems must undertake in order to make sense of the visual world. Such tasks include but are not limited to: the reception of afferent input, filtration of background noise from relevant foreground, directing attention, and categorization. All of these tasks and many more work in a dynamic and parallel manner to mold incoming information into a perceptual conclusion. I test the ability of motivations to shape 3 specific perceptual tasks including preperceptual activation of filters, the direction of attentional resources, and perceptual information
processing. This work enters into two key debates. First, the following
4 chapters suggest that perceptual systems are indeed penetrable and subject to influence by higher-order, social constraints including motivational states. Second, the following chapters will explore the boundaries of motivated cognition to test whether, how, and when it crosses the boundary separating how people consciously think about their world and how they literally see it.
5 II. History of Motivated Perception Throughout history, the interest in and support for motivated perception has waxed and waned. Pockets of researchers beginning in the early 1900’s have suggested that variance in perception cannot be accounted for by the interaction of the stimulus and the retina alone.
Bartlett (1932), most remembered for his work on memory, forecasted this perspective on perception proclaiming that “what is said to be perceived is in fact inferred” (p. 33). Wertheimer’s investigation into the illusion of motion in sequential presentation of static images, and his collaboration with Kafka and Kohler on gestalt principles of perception, included mechanisms outside of direct sensation.