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See Inside July / August 2010

Looks Can Deceive: Why Perception and Reality Don't Always Match Up

When you are facing a tricky task, your view of the world may not be as accurate as you think

Proffitt argues that perception is not fixed: it is flexible, reflecting a person’s physiological state. Your conscious perception of slant depends on your current ability to walk up or down hills—hard work that should not be undertaken lightly. If you are tired, frail, scared or carrying a load, your assessment of the hill—the one that guides your actions—will differ from what you see. Not by choice, but by design. It is the way you are wired.

The Witt-Proffitt team published another report on the observation, well known in sports lore, that baseball players perceive the ball to be larger when they are hitting well and smaller when they are on a losing streak. Since then, Witt, now a professor at Purdue University, along with her student Travis Dorsch, has pursued this intriguing link between how success (or lack of it) in a task affects one’s perception of the world.

In their experiment, 23 volunteers had to kick an American football through the field goal from the 10-yard line. After a warm-up, participants were asked to judge the height and width of the goal by adjusting a handheld, scaled-down model of the goal made out of PVC pipes. They then each performed 10 kicks. Immediately after the final kick, participants repeated the perceptual measurement.

The result was striking. Before kicking, both groups had the same perception of the size of the goal (incidentally, an inaccurate one: everybody underestimated its actual width-to-height ratio). But after 10 kicks, the poor performers (those who scored two or fewer successful kicks) saw the goal as about 10 percent narrower than they had before, whereas the good kickers (those who scored three or more) perceived the goal to be about 10 percent wider. How well you have performed over the past few minutes influences the way you see the world! Not just metaphorically, but on a physiological level—it changes your actual perceptions.

After more data mining, the two psychologists discovered that the people who missed the goal because they tended to kick the ball too short perceived the crossbar as being higher than did their more successful peers, whereas those who missed because they kicked wide judged the upright field posts to be narrower.

So by now you may be thinking: How convenient! The perceptual system offers us self-serving justifications for bad performance. But there is likely some value here, evolutionarily speaking: if people perceive the goal as higher or smaller than it actually is, they will aim more precisely the next time. What happens in football also holds for softball and golf, Witt and her colleagues have found—and, most likely, for life in general.

Our conscious perception of the world, though relatively stable, is not static. We are incapable of being fully objective, even in our most mundane observations and impressions. Our awareness of the objects around us is informed and fine-tuned by any number of transient factors—our strength and energy levels, our sense of confidence, our fears and desires. Being human means seeing the world through your own, constantly shifting, lens.

This article was originally published with the title "Consciousness Redux: Looks Can Deceive."

(Further Reading)

  • Perceived Slant: A Dissociation between Perception and Action. J. K. Witt and D. R. Proffitt in Perception, Vol. 36, pages 249–257; 2007.
  • Kicking to Bigger Uprights: Field Goal Kicking Performance Influences Perceived Size. J. K. Witt and T. E. Dorsch in Perception, Vol. 38, pages 1328–1340; 2009.
  • The Roles of Altitude and Fear in the Perception of Height. J. K. Stefanucci and D. R. Proffitt in Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, Vol. 35, pages 424–439; 2009.
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