We Often “See” What We Expect to See

(p. 9) The Justice Department recently analyzed eight years of shootings by Philadelphia police officers. Its report contained two sobering statistics: Fifteen percent of those shot were unarmed; and in half of these cases, an officer reportedly misidentified a “nonthreatening object (e.g., a cellphone) or movement (e.g., tugging at the waistband)” as a weapon.
Many factors presumably contribute to such shootings, ranging from carelessness to unconscious bias to explicit racism, all of which have received considerable attention of late, and deservedly so.
But there is a lesser-known psychological phenomenon that might also explain some of these shootings. It’s called “affective realism”: the tendency of your feelings to influence what you see — not what you think you see, but the actual content of your perceptual experience.
. . .
The brain is a predictive organ. A majority of your brain activity consists of predictions about the world — thousands of them at a time — based on your past experience. These predictions are not deliberate prognostications like “the Red Sox will win the World Series,” but unconscious anticipations of every sight, sound and other sensation you might encounter in every instant. These neural “guesses” largely shape what you see, hear and otherwise perceive.
. . .
. . . , our lab at Northeastern University has conducted experiments to document affective realism. For example, in one study we showed an affectively neutral face to our test subjects, and using special equipment, we secretly accompanied it with a smiling or scowling face that the subjects could not consciously see. (The technique is called “continuous flash suppression.”) We found that the unseen faces influenced the subjects’ bodily activity (e.g., how fast their hearts beat) and their feelings. These in turn influenced their perceptions: In the presence of an unseen scowling face, our subjects felt unpleasant and perceived the neutral face as less likable, less trustworthy, less competent, less attractive and more likely to commit a crime than when we paired it with an unseen smiling face.
These weren’t just impressions; they were actual visual changes. The test subjects saw the neutral faces as having a more furrowed brow, a more surly mouth and so on. (Some of these findings were published in Emotion in 2012.)
. . .
. . . the brain is wired for prediction, and you predict most of the sights, sounds and other sensations in your life. You are, in large measure, the architect of your own experience.

For the full commentary, see:
Feldman Barrett, Lisa, and Jolie Wormwood. “When a Gun Is Not a Gun.” The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., April 19, 2015): 9.
(Note: italics in original; ellipses added.)
(Note: the date of the online version of the commentary is APRIL 17, 2015.)

The academic article mentioned in the passage quoted above, is:
Anderson, Eric, Erika Siegel, Dominique White, and Lisa Feldman Barrett. “Out of Sight but Not out of Mind: Unseen Affective Faces Influence Evaluations and Social Impressions.” Emotion 12, no. 6 (Dec. 2012): 1210-21.

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