Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Delusions of grandeur I: Overconfidence, effort, and perception

Goals and motivations can even affect what you see.

For at least the past 30 years, going to graduate school in Psychology with the aim of being a professor one day has been an act of bizarre faith. The academic job market often has about 50 jobs in each area of Psychology, and there are hundreds of PhD's competing for these slots. I know that when I was a graduate student, I assumed that I would get a job despite those odds. And every year, a fresh crop of students takes this same plunge.

This overconfidence is not restricted to PhD candidates in Psychology, of course. There are basketball players all over the country who devote hours to their game with the hope of gracing an NBA court. Entrepreneurs pursue new companies and new ideas with dreams of success, even though most new ventures fail. Couples continue to get married, despite a divorce rate that hovers at 50%.

It is strange that people are often poorly calibrated about their chances of success. Many times, we are overly confident of our abilities, though at other times we seem unduly pessimistic. It is rare that we have a realistic outlook on the future. Why don't we do a better job of calculating our chances in ventures in the world?

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In this series of posts, I will talk about the positive and negative effects of these errors in calibration on behavior and motivation.

To get things started, I focus on what you might think is an interesting contrast: visual perception. I think most of us assume that while we may be systematically wrong in our confidence about future events, that we are probably reasonably accurate in our beliefs about what is out there in our visual world. At a minimum, we probably assume that what we see in the world is not that strongly affected by our current goals and motivations. That is, there may be biases in what we see, but the way we perceive the world shouldn't change just because our goals and motivations have changed.

Dennis Proffitt and his colleagues have done a lot of important research to demonstrate that even our perceptions of the world are strongly biased by our motivations. For example, Proffitt along with his colleagues Jeanine Stefanucci, Tom Banton, and William Epstein did a series of studies published in the journal Psychological Science in 2003. They manipulated the amount of effort people required to walk by doing things like making them wear a heavy backpack. Then, they had people judge distances from where they were standing to various points in the world. When people had to expend more effort to walk, they consistently judged distances as further away than when they had to expend less effort.

Success also influences perception. Jessica Witt, Sally Linkenauger, Jonathan Bakdash, and Dennis Proffitt published a 2008 paper in Psychonomic Bulletin and Review looking at people'sjudgments of the size of golf holes based on how well they were putting. Some people made a series of very short putts, while others made long putts. Not surprisingly, the people taking short putts sank more of them than people taking long putts. Afterward, everyone stood at the same distance from the golf hole, and while looking at it, they reproduced the size of the hole using a computer drawing package. The people who sank more putts drew larger holes than the people who sank fewer putts. So, success at this task actually influenced how large the hole looked.

The importance of these examples is that our current goals, motivations, and task success affect visual perception. These effects are surprising. But if our goals and motivations can influence what we see, we should probably not be surprised that they also affect our confidence in the future.

Starting with the next post, I'll talk about how beliefs about future outcomes affect our current behavior.

Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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