By Catherine A. Sanderson, Amherst College
The most important part of perception is how we interpret the organized sensory information we get from the world. Our perceptual abilities would enable us to recognize the shape of a person standing outside our door, but it’s the interpretation of that person’s intent—are they selling something, soliciting a donation, promoting their religious faith—that would influence whether we would open the door.
Influences on Our Interpretations
Our interpretation is influenced in part by context or frame of reference effects, meaning environmental factors that trigger particular comparisons. If we ask how an outside temperature of 70 degrees feels, someone in Miami might describe it as pretty chilly whereas someone in Boston might describe it as pretty warm.
Our interpretation is also influenced by what psychologists call a perceptual set, meaning our readiness to perceive things in a particular way, based on our expectations.
A classic demonstration of the power of our expectations was done a number of years ago, in which researchers showed people a video of a baby reacting to a jack-in-the-box toy popping up. In some cases, they told people the baby was a boy; in other cases, they told people the baby was a girl. Although all people saw the exact same video, they described the baby’s reaction in very different ways depending on what they were told about the baby’s gender. They saw the baby’s response as angry if they believed the baby was a boy, but as scared if they thought the baby was a girl.
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Unfortunately, our tendency to see things in very different ways based on our expectations can have serious consequences. Researchers in one study asked white people to read a scenario in which a Black or white football player scored a touchdown and then either celebrated that touchdown by spiking the ball and then doing his signature dance or showed no reaction to scoring. The participants were then asked to say whether the player deserved a salary bonus for this touchdown.
It turned out that race did influence whether people saw the player as deserving of a bonus. White players were seen as equally deserving of a bonus whether or not they had celebrated their touchdown. Black players were judged as deserving a bonus only if they had not celebrated. These findings, termed the ‘hubris penalty’, show that the exact same celebratory behavior is perceived differently, depending on the athlete’s race.
This example of how our behavior is influenced by factors without our conscious awareness illustrates subliminal perception, meaning our ability to detect stimuli below the absolute threshold for conscious awareness.
Research clearly shows that we can detect and be influenced by stimuli below our level of conscious awareness. For example, people who are subliminally primed with the words ‘Lipton Ice’ later show a greater intention to drink Lipton Iced tea than people who are primed with different words.
Effects of Subtle Cues in Environment
Research also shows that subtle cues in our environment can influence our behavior, even if we aren’t paying deliberate attention to them. This type of subtle priming is why advertisers pay to place products in a movie.
In one clever study, researchers at New York University brought in college students to participate in a test that supposedly measured language proficiency. They were given various sets of words and were told to use those words—and only those words—to form a grammatically correct sentence. Half the students received a set of words that cued old age, such as retired, old, and wrinkled. The other students received a set of neutral words, such as private, clean, and thirsty.
After completing this task, the students were told that the study was over, and they were free to leave. But in reality, this was actually the key part of the study. As soon as the students left the room, the researchers started a stopwatch and timed how long it took them to walk down the hall to the elevator. Just as they predicted, students who had just completed the sentences with the words cueing old age took significantly longer to walk down the hall than those who had used the neutral words.
Limits of Subliminal or Subtle Primes on Behavior
It’s important to recognize the limits of subliminal or subtle primes on our behavior.
Many of these effects are very short-lived; they influence people’s immediate behaviour, but they can’t possibly have long-term effects on behaviour.
There’s also no evidence that listening to subliminal audio programs can help us lose weight or stop smoking. So-called backmasking—where an audio message is recorded backwards to hide its meaning—has not been shown to influence behavior.
Sensation is always necessary for perception. This is why so-called ESP or extra-sensory perception is not possible, despite the fact that many people believe in some form of ESP: telepathy (mindreading), precognition (predicting the future), or clairvoyance (perceiving objects or people when they aren’t actually present in their environment). Beliefs in perception without sensation tend to lead to large sums of money spent each year on psychics and mediums.
In a scandal that provoked the whole replication crisis in psychology, in 2012 a psychology professor at Cornell University published a paper in a highly respected journal supposedly providing empirical evidence for ESP. His study appeared to show college students could accurately predict something, such as which of two pairs of curtains concealed a hidden image that they could not see, suggesting extrasensory perception might be possible. This study, not surprisingly, made national news.
But other researchers found serious statistical and methodological flaws and failed to replicate his findings. Rigorous research studies designed to test extra-sensory perception continue to demonstrate that sensation is indeed always necessary for perception.
Common Questions about Interpretation of the Organized Sensory Information
Our interpretation of the organized sensory information we get from the world is influenced in part by context or frame of reference effects, meaning environmental factors that trigger particular comparisons, and by what psychologists call a perceptual set, meaning our readiness to perceive things in a particular way, based on our expectations.
Our behavior is influenced by factors without our conscious awareness, illustrating subliminal perception. This means we have the ability to detect stimuli below the absolute threshold for conscious awareness.
Research shows that subtle cues in our environment can influence our behavior, even if we aren’t paying deliberate attention to them. That is why advertisers pay to place products in a movie.