These perceptual distortions manifested in physical actions towards desirable or undesirable objects as well. Participants who were asked to toss a beanbag towards a desirable object (a $25 gift card) came up significantly shorter than participants who tossed the bag towards a neutral object (a gift card worth $0), perceiving it to be closer than it actually was.
Finally, participants were asked to stand opposite a wall upon which experimenters had placed two strips of tape exactly 90 inches away from each other. Beneath one of the pieces of tape was either a bag of chocolates or a bag of what experimenters described as a “freshly collected sample of dog feces” - two things most of us can, hopefully, agree are desirable and undesirable. Participants were asked to move towards the object until their distance equaled the distance between the pieces of tape. Participants, overestimating their proximity to the desirable object, moved significantly closer to the feces than the chocolate. Street-walkers everywhere beware: dog poop is closer than it may appear.
Though these findings may conjure up images of moving in for kisses that land short or attempted caresses that only glance the tip of your target’s nose, the authors argue that these types of distortions are an important part of social life. They help motivate us to pursue those goals that are particularly desirable, and encourage us to not pursue those goals that might be particularly difficult to attain. The logic here is simply that energy is a limited resource, and over evolutionary time the individuals who have been most successful have been those who directed their energy towards goals that would either benefit them the most or that would not come at too high a risk.
The closer an object appears, the more obtainable it seems. The more obtainable it seems, the more likely we are to go for it. Likewise, the more challenging a goal appears (a mile run when you’re out of shape) the more distant it will seem. The more distant it seems, the less likely you are to lace up your sneakers and the more likely you are to hit up those sweat pants and leftovers. This may seem counter-intuitive – after all, running is good for our health, so how could a perceptual bias that makes us less likely to do it be helpful? While it may be disconcerting to know that your eyes conspire against your waistline, the “impossible is nothing” mentality of our exercise culture, though it will certainly help you look great in a swimsuit, was probably not a terrific strategy over evolutionary time. That chasm over there? Impossible to jump across. How about that growling bear? It’s impossible to physically subdue. There would have been goals that were impossible or, at least, very difficult or unlikely for an individual to achieve, and having the perceptual system guide us in the right direction (e.g. by making the chasm look wider than it actually is, and the bear perhaps a bit larger and meaner) would have been extremely important.