Cognition and perception

Wishful seeing

Emily Balcetis outlines research on how desires and motivations change perceptions in the eyes of the beholder

17 January 2014

At the age of 44, Mary Jo Coady’s Catholic faith was waning. With her marriage and career failing, the past few years challenged her resolve. Mary Jo wished for a sign of hope and found it in the most unusual of places – her iron. She looked down and saw the face of Jesus staring back at her from the iron’s rusty bottom. Mary Jo was, of course, not the first to see a holy sight in an unusual place. Pittsburgh resident Jeffrey Rigo emerged from a shower wishing for a solution to his costly home repairs when he saw the likeness of Jesus on a water-stained piece of plaster. Likewise, Florida resident Diana Duyser toasted a grilled cheese sandwich and saw that the burned bits on the crust miraculously depicted the face of the Virgin Mary. She found many of her problems solved and wishes granted by the $70,000 in winnings she said possession of it brought her at the Golden Palace Casino and the $28,000 she sold it for on eBay 10 years later. People’s wishes, desires, and hopes can affect the way they see the world.

Just as the wish to see a message from God so close at hand (or mouth) contributed to these perceptual interpretations of burn marks as saintly reflections, people’s wishes in many arenas can affect visual experiences. In the 1999 American League Championship baseball game, second base umpire Tim Tschida was certain he saw the Yankee’s first baseman tag Jose Offerman as he ran past. However, Red Sox fans were certain they saw that the attempted tag was a miss, and angrily flooded the field with soda cups and hotdog wrappers. Likewise, in the 1966 World Cup Finals, English soccer fans were certain they saw Geoff Hurst’s shot fully cross West Germany’s goal line even when the Russian linesman was equally sure that it had not. Many people, across many religious proclivities, national allegiances, and team loyalties, see the world the way they wish it to be. In a sense, they experience wishful seeing (Balcetis & Dunning, 2006).

Testing for wishing seeing
Wishful seeing can occur on a daily basis, even when looking at common objects or images, like ourselves. People get a lot of practice perceiving their own image. In fact, a British survey found that men look at themselves on average 27 times a day and women 34 times a day (Hull, 2007). When we wake up in the morning, stand waiting for an elevator, or are trapped at  a red light, we often look in the mirror and are met with the reflection of our own image. Even with repeated exposure to our own face, wishes influence how we see ourselves. Indeed, studies confirm that people tend to see themselves as more attractive than they actually are (Epley & Whitchurch, 2008). Researchers used computer software to morph photographs of participants’ faces with those of beautiful models or ugly prototypes. In so doing, they created several more and less attractive renditions of the original, placed all of the images in a random lineup, and simply asked participants to select which of the images was their actual face. By and large, people identified an attractively enhanced version as themselves more often than they did any other version including the actual one. Moreover, people with high self-esteem, as measured by implicit non-conscious tests, tended to identify even more flattering photographs as themselves compared to people with relatively low self-esteem. People, especially those with high self-esteem, wish to think of themselves in a positive light, and as a result may come to perceive themselves as more attractive than they actually are.

Individuals with high-self esteem are not alone in seeing themselves as speciously stunning. Under the right circumstances, all of us may be susceptible to such illusory visual self-perceptions. After looking at mundane landscapes, people were pretty good at selecting their actual face from a lineup of morphed photographs ranging in attractiveness (Zell & Balcetis, 2012, see Figure 1). But, after looking at homely college students, participants selected an image of themselves that included about 12 per cent of the attractive referent. That is, they saw themselves as more attractive than they actually were. This occurred despite the fact that they were directly looking at themselves in a mirror when making the choice. Perhaps exposure to unattractive others sparked a motivation or wish to engage in self-flattery, which shifted their perceptual experience when looking in a mirror.

Wishful seeing occurs even when looking at something for the very first time. Indeed, studies we conducted in the lab support this conclusion. In a series of studies, we experimentally created desires and tested the consequences on perceptual experience (Balcetis & Dunning, 2010). Participants knew that the computer would present an image that would determine what they would do next. Some participants knew that if the computer presented an image of a farm animal, they would get to judge a singing competition. If, on the other hand, the computer presented a marine animal, they would have to sing a karaoke tune on the spot in front of judges and a camera. To underscore the probable embarrassment, participants watched a video depicting a thickset man awkwardly singing off-key and dancing out of step to Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’. This created desires to avoid the embarrassment this previous participant seemed to suffer, and increased the desire to see a farm animal. (Of course, for other participants we switched the pairings, indicating that marine animals were associated with the desirable role of judge.) The computer then showed participants, for one second, an ambiguous drawing that could be interpreted in one of two ways – as either the head of a donkey or the body of a seal (see Figure 2a). Of participants who wished for farm animals, 97 per cent interpreted the drawing as a donkey or horse; however, participants who wished for marine animals were significantly less likely to interpret it as a horse. Participants’ wishes affected their perceptual interpretations.

Wishful seeing, in these lab studies, occurred without people’s awareness and even when we gave them an incentive to change what they saw. In another study we again created desires by associating farm animals with tasting freshly squeezed orange juice, and marine animals with tasting a chunky, gelatinous, green, slightly pickle-scented goo we referred to as ‘an organic veggie smoothie’.

We presented the donkey–seal ambiguous drawing for one second. Then participants’ computers appeared to crash. The experimenter feigned surprise and suggested she made a mistake when setting up the program. She said she should have keyed in that farm animals were paired with the veggie smoothie and marine animals were paired with the orange juice. Her scripted speech essentially switched participants’ desires. Although they originally wished for farm animals at the time the image appeared, they were now wishing the computer presented a sea creature. After making the switch, she asked if anything appeared on the screen before the crash. We suspected participants’ wishes at the time they saw the ambiguous drawing would affect perception, even though after the switch they held a strong desire to see the drawing differently. If our predictions were correct, participants should have reported seeing an animal that aligned with their original wishes. This was exactly what happened. Of participants who originally hoped for farm animals prior to the computer error and switch, 100 per cent reported seeing a horse or donkey, even though this meant they all would now be consuming the disgusting and undesired beverage. Wishful seeing is a robust phenomenon that occurs outside of conscious control and despite pressures to change one’s perceptual experience.

Slow and steady or quick and easy?
What sort of timing is required for wishful seeing to emerge? Can wishes flash-fry perceptual experiences, quickly transforming the raw ingredients of visual perception into a desired product? Or do wishes require the passage of time to slowly stew and simmer the flavours?

To comment on the speed with which wishes change visual experience, we called upon a different visual experience, referred to as binocular rivalry (Balcetis et al., 2012). We asked participants who visited our lab to wear goggles (see Figure 2b). These goggles were odd in that a red lens covered one eye and a green lens covered the other, each filtering out a specific colour. For instance, any image presented in red would not be visible when looking through the red lens. Any image in green would not be visible when looking through the green.

Participants wore these goggles while playing a game we made. They knew the could win raffle tickets redeemable for money and prizes if the computer randomly selected winning symbols, like letters. But they knew they would lose tickets if the computer selected other symbols, like numbers. We told them that the computer could and might show both letters and numbers across trials, but what they did not know was the computer actually presented both letters and numbers simultaneously. For example, the letter A appeared in red, overlapped by the number 6 in green. When they wore goggles, participants did not see both a letter and number. Instead, the coloured lenses each filtered out half of the visual information. In one eye appeared a letter and in the other, a number. Because in real life rarely does each eye receive contradictory pieces of sensory input, people react to binocular rivalry by experiencing a sort of blindness for one of the competing symbols. Participants experience seeing either the A or the 6, but not both. Their eyes and brain ‘choose’, without their knowledge, to present one symbol to conscious awareness and to suppress conscious perception of the other.

We tested whether participants’ wishes, based on the reward structure we created in the game, would predict whether they perceived the letters or numbers during binocular rivalry. We presented each composite image for only 300 milliseconds – a very brief amount of time to make sense of the image. We also gave participants an incentive to tell us exactly what they saw. Although we told them that, like slot machines, they could not control what symbols appeared, they could win even more tickets if they accurately described their perceptual experiences while wearing the goggles. These instructions created wishes but also gave participants an incentive to tell us if they saw something other than the symbol they wished to see. Nonetheless, participants saw what they wished to see. When they wished for numbers, for example, participants saw a number about 64 per cent of the time. Even though participants had only a very short time to make sense of the images and had a financial incentive to accurately report what symbol really appeared, their wishes affected this sort of perceptual choice.

Other types of wishes, desires and motivations affect perception during binocular rivalry. For instance, the appeal of juicy gossip changes what people saw. The face of a person known to have lied, cheated or stolen popped out during rivalry more so than the face of a person known to be a good Samaritan (Anderson et al., 2011). In addition, the wish or need to defend against harm led people to see faces depicting fear or disgust more so than those depicting neutral expressions (Alpers & Pauli, 2006; Bannerman et al., 2008). And heterosexual men perceived photographs of nude females easier than nude males during rivalry, while homosexual men had an easier time picking out the nude males (Jiang et al., 2006). Wishes, hopes, and desires affect what people see quickly and without their awareness.

The adaptive nature of wishful seeing
Why does this happen? Why would the visual system allow wishful seeing to occur? Although the reasons are many, one function of wishful seeing may be to help people meet their goals. Seeing what we want to see might help us get the things we need to stay safe, happy, and healthy. If we are tuned and ready to see the good things in our surroundings, we might be better prepared to pursue them (Bruner, 1957). This may be why thirsty people see a glass of water as bigger (Veltkamp et al., 2008) and a bottle of water as closer (Balcetis & Dunning, 2010). In so doing, people notice more readily and prepare themselves to grab more quickly the large cup to quench their parched throats.

Indeed, people may perceive the world in ways that help them meet goals. Coins appears bigger to the poor (Bruner & Goodman, 1947) and powerless (Dubois et al., 2010). Money also appears closer to financially strapped college students (Balcetis & Dunning, 2010). In perceiving money as larger and closer, those who need it might be energised and eager to do what they must to move up the social or fiscal ladder. Similarly, people who have just been socially rejected are better at recognising real smiles and sorting them from fake ones. This vigilance may ready the lonely to recognise an opportunity for true affiliation with willing others (Bernstein et al., 2008). In many contexts, objects that help people meet an important goal appear bigger – a pen to a person who wishes to write, a towel to a person who wishes to clean, a shovel to someone who wishes to garden all appear larger than when the goal is not active (Veltkamp et al., 2008). Common among these varied examples is the possibility that wishes affect perception in ways that may spur people to act when their goals require it.

Connecting wishful seeing to action
The link between wishful seeing and acting in one’s best interest is most evident when investigating how people perceive their environments. Consider for a moment the inveterate advice passed down from one mountaineer to the next: ‘It’s always further than it looks, it’s always taller than it looks, and it’s always harder than it looks.’ Indeed, the way people perceive the incline of a mountain path or the distance from the start to the end of a trail often fails to align perfectly with reality. Often those outdoor enthusiasts who hold the strongest goals and work the hardest to fulfill their wishes systematically misperceive environments in ways that spur them onward and upward.

Indeed, research suggests the mountaineers’ proclamations are true. People most motivated to make it to a finish line or to trudge up a hill actually see the environment as less extreme. In our research (Cole et al., 2013), participants completed a battery of health tests, received feedback, and had the chance to complete one final test. We told some people that they scored poorly on the preliminary tests, but walking quickly during the final test could raise their fitness score. These people were motivated and wished to make it to the finish line quickly. For others, we told them that they scored highly on the preliminary tests and performance on the final one would not change their score much. These people were not motivated since they felt like they had already met their fitness goals. Then, everyone knew they would walk to a finish line while wearing ankle weights. Before walking, they estimated the distance to the finish line. The people who wanted to get to the finish line the most actually estimated that the distance was 32 per cent shorter than those who did not care about getting there. The strong desire to make it to the finish line changed participants’ perception of distance.

Even more interesting is the fact that perceptual experiences changed the most for overweight participants. We measured the circumference of participants’ waist and hips, to assess distributions of belly fat – the best predictor of serious health conditions (Su et al., 2010). Using waist-to-hip ratios, we found that people in better shape actually saw the distance as fairly short, regardless of whether they were motivated to make it to the finish line. But for people who struggled with their weight and were relatively unhealthy, the strength of their motivation mattered. Overweight people wishing to make it to the finish line saw it as closer than those without the goal. For the unmotivated and overweight, the finish line appeared far away and the distance overwhelming. Strong motivations changed perceptions of distance, particularly among those people who might struggle meet their fitness goals.

Just as it is important for people to move when they are motivated, it is also important to conserve energy when it’s scarce. Perception of the environment may also help people with this aspect of regulating action. If distances look far and hills look steep, people may find their interest in traversing them reduced. Indeed, energy affects perception. Joggers estimated that a hill was about 37 per cent steeper after finishing a long run compared to estimates made before going out for a run (Proffitt et al., 1995). Older participants perceived the slant of steep hills as greater than younger participants (Bhalla & Proffitt, 1999). Patients experiencing chronic back pain perceived distances as further than their healthy counterparts (Witt et al., 2009). People with low blood sugar saw a hill as 14 per cent steeper than those who just drank a Coke and had their energy fortified (Schnall et al., 2010). In general, when people are tired or ill-equipped to easily traverse an environment, they seem to perceive distances as longer and hills as steeper. Perceiving the environment as more extreme may serve as a subtle suggestion or cue for inaction.

The professionals
These visual illusions and systematic misperceptions are not just parlour tricks that affect only the unwitting, unaware, old or naive. Visual experiences are systematically biased even among the highly trained. For instance, skilled parkour athletes hop tall fences and climb barriers that others their same age and height consider insurmountable. Indeed, male parkour athletes literally saw walls as shorter than male novices who did not hold the same ability or desire to climb them (Taylor et al., 2011). American football kickers who earned their team more points perceived the field goal posts as further apart than kickers in a slump (Witt & Dorsch, 2009). And golfers who just played a round well estimated that the golf hole was wider than those off their game that day (Witt et al., 2008). While certainly the walls may look shorter, the goal posts wider, and the hole bigger because of differences in preparation, proficiency and recent performance, differences in perception arise in part because of differences in the motivations, wishes and desires of expert athletes.

In sum
The archives tell us that the blonde bombshell Marilyn Monroe saw her homely husband Arthur Miller as a beautiful man, describing to reporters that he was, ‘a man to which I am attracted… practically out of my senses about’ (Kashner, 2010). Did Marilyn really come to see Arthur as her own Adonis though paparazzi and gossipmongers continually declared him ‘bony’ and ‘nebbish’? Did her wishes, desires and motivations truly affect how she saw him? While this stands as a question for the historians, researchers continue to ask if, how, when, and why people might see the world as they wish it to be.

Emily Balcetis
is Assistant Professor of Psychology at New York University
[email protected]