Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Motivation alters physical perception

Here is a clip from the Editor's choice section of the Oct. 5 issue of Science:
Students in elementary physics classes are introduced to the concept of frame of reference--the spatial coordinate system used by an observer to describe events--for instance, in the context of the perceived motion of trees by a passenger in a moving automobile. Adding in the dimension of time leads into non-intuitive territory, as in the example of a traveling astronaut who returns to Earth younger than her stay-at-home twin.

Building on previous work that demonstrated that internal physiological states can influence one's perception of physical quantities (such as thirsty people being more likely to characterize objects as transparent; that is, resembling water), Balcetis and Dunning show that internal psychological states are also capable of altering our perception of the external world. They induced states of high or low cognitive dissonance (a mismatch between thought and action) by asking or telling two groups of students to walk across campus wearing various fruit- and vegetable-themed adornments. In order to render a freely chosen yet somewhat embarrassing task less unpleasant to fulfill, the first set of students mentally shortened the distance they had to cover by estimating it to be fully 40% less than the average estimate made by the second group. Intriguingly, the route to ameliorating the state of dissonance appeared to be purely perceptual, as the free-choice students did not shorten their time of exposure by walking faster; in fact, they took about 10% longer.
The abstract of the original article;
Two studies demonstrated that the motivation to resolve cognitive dissonance affects the visual perception of physical environments. In Study 1, subjects crossed a campus quadrangle wearing a costume reminiscent of Carmen Miranda. In Study 2, subjects pushed themselves up a hill while kneeling on a skateboard. Subjects performed either task under a high-choice, low-choice, or control condition. Subjects in the high-choice conditions, presumably to resolve dissonance, perceived the environment to be less aversive than did subjects in the low-choice and control conditions, seeing a shorter distance to travel (Study 1) and a shallower slope to climb (Study 2). These studies suggest that the impact of motivational states extends from social judgment down into perceptual processes.

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