According to a report today from the Associated Press, Iran's National Olympic Committee is threatening to boycott the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Why, you ask? Because of disagreement with Britain over the development of Iran's nuclear program? In protest of British policy in the Middle East? Nope. Because of a logo.

In a letter sent to International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge, the Iranian delegation argued that the "2012" logo for the London Games (left) actually spells out the word "Zion," a biblical term usually used to refer to the city of Jerusalem (or "the Promised Land" more generally). According to reports, the Iranian letter went so far as to refer to it as a "racist logo."

Putting aside for a moment the reasonable question of what purpose could it possibly serve for Britain to sneak the word "Zion" into its Olympic logo, let's evaluate the claim from a perceptual standpoint. Look at the logo above. Where, pray tell, is the "Zion"?

I can see where you could get a ‘Z' from the first ‘2' and an ‘O' from the ‘0.' I can even see convincing yourself that the crooked ‘1' is an ‘I.' But there ain't no ‘N' in that logo no matter how hard you squint. And even if there were, wouldn't that spell "ZOIN," (conjuring up a reference less biblical and more homage to Shaggy of Scooby Doo fame)?

In any case, the claim is obviously ridiculous on a number of fronts. But it also seems to be an interesting demonstration of how what we want to see colors what we actually do see.

In fact, the whole affair is strikingly reminiscent of recent psychological research. In a 2006 paper titled "See What You Want to See: Motivational Influences on Visual Perception," Cornell University psychologists Emily Balcetis and David Dunning showed research respondents a series of ambiguous figures and found that personal motivations actually changed what people saw.

In one study, participants were told that they were in a taste-testing study and would be asked to sample one of two drinks. One was freshly squeezed orange juice. The other was "a gelatinous, chunky, green, foul-smelling, somewhat viscous concoction labeled as an ‘organic veggie smoothie.'" Which drink they would be asked to sample was to be determined by whether a computer program selected either a letter or a number at random.

Some participants were told that they'd have to drink the green concoction if the computer displayed a letter. Others learned that they'd get the unappealing drink if a number was flashed. The computer was then programmed to show this ambiguous figure (left).

Participants hoping to see a number–because it would mean they'd avoid the "veggie smoothie" and get the orange juice instead–tended to see this figure as a '13.' For participants hoping to see a letter instead, they usually saw the same figure as a ‘B.'

In subsequent studies, the researchers found that participants weren't simply claiming to see the character most beneficial to their own taste buds. Rather, their personal motivations actually changed what they believed they saw.

This idea that we see what we want to see is one that certainly holds true for how we interpret ambiguous events in our social universe. As I've blogged about before, we often perceive the world around us in a top-down manner, reinterpreting the evidence out there to fit a conclusion we've already reached:

• One person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter, and vice versa.

• The same pundit who celebrates the Tea Party rallies excoriates the Wisconsin union protests, and vice versa.

• Hell, now that the Iranian delegation has opened my eyes to Olympic shenanigans, I'm pretty sure that having Celine Dion perform at the Opening Ceremonies of the 1996 Atlanta Games was just an underhanded effort by Canadian sympathizers to undermine the musical taste of an entire generation of American youth.

But this notion that we "see" what we want to see also seems to hold true for a more literal definition of the verb. The amazing conclusion offered by the B/13 study and the supposedly controversial Olympic logo is that motivation and personal agenda don't just shape our interpretations of social events–they alter our actual visual perception as well.

The cold, hard, objective reality is that even the cold, hard, objective reality is pretty subjective.


Sam Sommers is a social psychologist at Tufts University in Medford, MA. His first book, Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World, will be published by Riverhead Books (Penguin) in December 2011. You can follow him on Facebook here and on Twitter here.

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