Motivated reality

Photo by Flcikr user AMagill. Click for sourceNeurophilosophy has a great piece on a new study finding that the perception of distance to an object was altered by how much someone wanted it, with a greater desire leading the people in the study to perceive the object as closer. This a summary of one of the several experiments that demonstrated the effect:

Participants were asked to throw a small rubber bean bag towards a gift voucher placed on the floor in front of them, and told that the person whose toss landed closest to the voucher would win it. One group was told that the voucher had a value of $25, thus making it desirable to them, while the other was led to believe that it was worthless. This experiment confirmed the earlier ones – those participants who believed the voucher was worth something perceived it to be nearer, and consequently underthrew the bean bag so that it fell short of the target.

As Mo notes, these experiments are related to what is known as the ‘New Look’ movement in psychology which arose in the 1940s as a direct challenge to the behaviourists who said that all mental states, such as beliefs and desire, were illusions and had no scientific basis.

The New Look theories argued that our perception of reality could be directly influenced by our desires and set about proving behaviourists wrong by using their own tools, physical measurements of perception, to prove them wrong.

The movement was sparked by a 1947 study by psychologists Jerome Bruner and Cecile Goodman that has become a classic in the field and is still fascinating today.

They asked children to estimate the size of coins using an adjustable ‘collar’ and found the kids consistently judged the coins to be bigger than identically sized cardboard circles, suggesting the monetary value of the coins was influencing how big they perceived the dimensions to be.

But the clincher for the idea that value and desire altered perception was that the children from poorer backgrounds perceived the coins to be bigger than children from richer backgrounds.

The study caused huge interest and many studies followed in the subsequent years, partly as the field allowed the combination of both experimental psychology and Freudian-inspired ideas about the power of unconscious motivations.

These latest studies, covered expertly by Neurophilosophy, follow in the same tradition.

Link to Neurophilosophy on how ‘Desire influences visual perception’.
Link to full text of Bruner and Goodman’s classic study.

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