Take a look at the cup of coffee in front of you. Think of how badly you want it. Think of the warmth it will bring as it slips past your pursed lips and reaches through your body’s core. The inviting astringency that lingers on your tastebuds, and that can only be abated by another sip. Once you have worked yourself into a caffeine-deprived frenzy, reach out your hand and try and grasp your liquid gold. New research conducted by Emily Balcetis and David Dunning and published in a recent issue of the journal Psychological Science suggests that you might not reach far enough. The coffee cup appears closer than it really is.
This may sound absurd to those of us who believe we see the natural world as it is. How far away am I from my coffee mug? Why, as far away as it looks! The authors’ argument, however, rests on the idea that the way we see the world can be distorted by the way we feel and think about it. Their research is part of an emerging body of work supporting this idea. For example, researchers have found that hills appear steeper and distances longer when people are fatigued or carrying heavy loads. The difficulty of the task distorts our perception of distance. This will ring true for any post-holiday jogger who might at first be astonished at how long a mile appears with the weight of turkey, stuffing and cheesecake dangling from his sides. But as the pounds drip away, the mile marker doesn’t look quite so distant. Anyone who has been tasked with exceedingly tedious administrative work probably has an intimate understanding of this well. As I grade student exams, the more tedious the work, the less of an impact I seem to be making in that tall stack of papers in front of me. Haven’t I been doing this for two hours already?
Balcetis and Dunning wondered whether the desirability of an object might also influence perception, causing us to distort our proximity to objects we crave. In other words, do objects that we want or like appear closer to us than they actually are? In a series of clever experiments Balcetis and Dunning varied the desirability of target objects and asked for participants’ estimates of their physical proximity to these objects. For example, participants who had just eaten pretzels perceived a water bottle as significantly closer to them relative to participants who had just drank as much water as they wanted. In other words, those who desired the water more, perceived it as more easily attainable. A $100 bill that participants had the possibility of winning appeared closer to participants than a $100 bill that belonged to the experimenter. The results of surveys that provided participants with positive social feedback (you have an “above average” sense of humor) were perceived as closer than surveys that provided negative feedback (you have a “below average” sense of humor).