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).

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. 

In sum, the things that we want will be perceived as relatively closer and more obtainable and energize action geared towards their acquisition. This perhaps explains why that cute bartender you’ve been eyeing recently appears to lean in tantalizingly close when pouring your drink. But beware of how your eyes may deceive you. Though you may desire the barkeep’s affections, those dexterous hands may be farther away than you think. What appears to be within reach might, in fact, not be so. Indeed, these findings suggest that Morrissey’s musings on the effects of unrequited love need revision. While he may be right that the “the more you ignore me, the closer I get”, it may be equally true that the more you ignore me, the closer you get.


Are you a scientist? Have you recently read a peer-reviewed paper that you want to write about? Then contact Mind Matters co-editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize–winning journalist at the Boston Globe, where he edits the Sunday Ideas section. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com