Visual acuity improves by autopilot

Photo by Flickr user MATEUS_27:24&25. Click for sourceWe tend to assume that visual acuity, the ability to distinguish fine detail with our eyes, is a physical limit of the body but a new study just published online by Psychological Science shows that prompting people with ideas about people who have excellent eyesight actually improves clearness of vision.

The research was led by psychologist Ellen Langer who has become well-known for her inventive and counter-intuitive research that has shown how changing beliefs and mental attitude can affect our performance.

Here’s the abstract of the study which describes the results of the main experiments:

These experiments show that vision can be improved by manipulating mind-sets. In Study 1, participants were primed with the mind-set that pilots have excellent vision. Vision improved for participants who experientially became pilots (by flying a realistic flight simulator) compared with control participants (who performed the same task in an ostensibly broken flight simulator). Participants in an eye-exercise condition (primed with the mind-set that improvement occurs with practice) and a motivation condition (primed with the mind-set “try and you will succeed”) demonstrated visual improvement relative to the control group. In Study 2, participants were primed with the mind-set that athletes have better vision than nonathletes. Controlling for arousal, doing jumping jacks resulted in greater visual acuity than skipping (perceived to be a less athletic activity than jumping jacks). Study 3 took advantage of the mind-set primed by the traditional eye chart: Because letters get progressively smaller on successive lines, people expect that they will be able to read the first few lines only. When participants viewed a reversed chart and a shifted chart, they were able to see letters they could not see before. Thus, mind-set manipulation can counteract physiological limits imposed on vision.

It’s worth saying that Langer and her team interpret the results in terms of ‘mindfulness’ but use a somewhat idiosyncratic definition of the term where most people would just describe it as priming or expectancy – that is, being exposed to a concept or having a certain approach encouraged by the circumstances.

The psychological concept of mindfulness is more commonly used to refer to an attentive awareness of experience that acknowledges each thought or perception but doesn’t get caught up or involved in it.

It is drawn from the Buddhist meditation practice of the same name and has become of interest to psychologists for treating intrusive thoughts and sensations and there is now increasing evidence for its effectiveness.

Despite this, Langer’s study is in line with previous experiments that have shown that exposing people to a stereotype subtly shifts their behaviour to more closely match the stereotype.

For example, studies have found that people’s performance on a quiz could be improved by asking them to think about the lifestyle of a professor and made worse by asking them to think about supermodels or football hooligans.

Another found that participants who were exposed to ideas about old people walked more slowly afterwards.

Interestingly, this effects seems only to hold true for general stereotypes as when people are primed with specific extreme examples (such as Albert Einstein instead of ‘professor’, or Kate Moss instead of ‘supermodel’) exactly the opposite happens, likely because instead of triggering a general association it leads us to make a direct personal comparison with the individual which may affect our motivation, whether we realise it or not.

Link to full text of Langer study.

2 Comments

  1. Posted April 21, 2010 at 4:16 am | Permalink

    I just wanted to post and say I really enjoyed this post and all of the posts you make here. Been reading for.. probably about half a year now. This stuff is fascinating.

  2. Posted April 21, 2010 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    “…this effects seems only to hold true for general stereotypes as when people are primed with specific extreme examples…likely because instead of triggering a general association it leads us to make a direct personal comparison with the individual”
    Actually this because the general stereotype is a global process and the specific person comparison is local process, not because we are comparing them to ourselves.


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