Do You See What I See?

Evidence that vision is partially influenced by goals.

Posted Dec 29, 2017

When we look out into the world, our attention could be drawn to any number of things. Our brain is processing a ton of information at a very high speed, sifting through it in order to direct our focus towards what is most pertinent in that situation, prioritizing survival. If we see a snake and a cupcake, we are going to be focusing on that snake first. (What, you don't often see cupcakes and snakes together?)

It seems easy to accept that motivations can play a role when it comes to what we focus on first when seeing into the world. When it comes to what we actually see though, this seems a bit harder to believe. Surely, most people would think that when looking at the same object, that has not changed in any way, motivation would not be able to adjust what is actually seen. After all, we see billions of things in our lives and none of us has any real awareness of our motivations changing anything we see. So this seems like a safe belief, even giving high credence to the power of information outside of our conscious awareness to influence our actions.

But, recent research into "wishful seeing" (headed by Associate Professor in Psychology Emily Balcetis at New York University) suggests that our motivations also influence what we see itself. That is, the exact same stimulus can be seen slightly differently when our goals and values are altered.

In one series of studies, participants were shown ambiguous images. For instance,in one study they saw an image that could be seen as either a "b" or a "13." This image was flashed quickly on the screen. Before this, participants were told that they would drink a beverage that tasted good or that tasted bad, depending on what the computer generated for them. Some were told that a good drink would come if the computer generated a letter (and hence a bad tasting drink if it did not) and some were told that a good drink would come if the computer generated a number (and hence a bad tasting drink if it did not). In other words, half the participants were motivated to see a number and half were motivated to see a letter.

When hoping to see a letter (corresponding to the tasty drink), 72 percent saw a letter (28 percent saw a number). When hoping to see a number, 60 percent saw a number (40 percent saw a letter). When people wanted to see a letter so that they could drink a tasty drink, they tended to do so, and when they wanted to see a number, they also tended to do so. 

In a follow-up study, participants were shown either the number 13 or the letter B in a similar study design (as opposed to an ambiguous figure). In this case, every participant reported seeing a letter if they were shown a letter and a number if shown a number. What they were told was more favorable (a letter or number) had no effect on what they saw, suggesting that participants were not just lying about what they had seen in the prior study in order to get the drink they wanted.

Taken together, these studies suggest that - at least in ambiguous situations - vision can be slightly altered based on our motivations.

Subsequent papers published by Balcetis and colleagues found that objects we desire tend to be seen as closer to us than they actually are, and that the same is true of stimuli that are threatening.

According to these authors then, our vision is influenced (in small, subtle ways) by our goals and values. 

(I am aware this research has been criticized. See here for a rebuttal of those criticisms).