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Believing is Seeing

Most of us can think of a time we engaged in wishful thinking, and it probably didn’t work out as we hoped. But the situation was likely out of our conscious control, because we are predisposed to see what we want to see – literally. Through a combination of social and cognitive psychology, Emily Balcetis of New York University has found that our desires influence our visual and cognitive attention, biasing us to see things in a certain way, even when we think we are being impartial. That may sound disheartening, but there is good news in Balcetis’s research, too: by intentionally focusing our attention on certain things, we can change what we see in our environment to be less biased and act in more productive ways.

Vision may seem like a concrete step in interpreting the world, but in reality it isn’t. Balcetis has explained that “the amount of information we can see clearly at any time is very small… Much of what we see is blurry, so our mind has to help us fill in” the rest. In her lab studies, she has shown that we do this in all kinds of situations. When presented with a supposed taste test of fresh squeezed orange juice or a green, foul-smelling “organic veggie smoothie,” people were more likely to interpret an ambiguous cue on a computer screen as prompting them to drink the orange juice rather than the smoothie. Before the 2008 presidential election, Balcetis and her colleagues presented participants with photographs of Barack Obama, in some of which his skin color was artificially lightened or darkened. People who thought the lighter skinned version looked more like him than the real version were overwhelmingly likely to vote for him; those who thought the darker skinned version looked more like him were highly likely to vote for McCain.

The solution to that kind of racial bias isn’t simple, but the solution to other kinds of biased beliefs might be. We all know it can be tough to get ourselves to exercise and eat right. Balcetis has found that perception is part of the problem, but can also be part of the solution. Among people who have strong dieting goals, those who see unhealthy snacks as farther away are more likely to meet their goals than people who perceive them as close at hand – and they are then less motivated to eat the diet-busting treats, her research has shown. Something similar happens with exercise. When she set up a difficult walking race in her lab, Balcetis found that people who were out of shape and unmotivated to exercise actually saw the finish line as farther away than others. But she and her collaborators, Shana Cole and Matt Riccio, came up with a strategy they call “keep your eyes on the prize” – they asked some of the participants to walk while keeping their eyes fixed on the finish line, as if there were a spotlight on it. Those participants saw the finish line as 30% closer, moved 23% faster, and reported expending 17% less effort than people who looked around as they naturally would. In a follow up study, participants who had spent 30 seconds learning to keep their eyes on the prize and then got daily reminders to use the strategy exercised more over the course of a week. Balcetis is encouraged by the results, because this kind of strategy “costs nothing, it’s easy to train people, it doesn’t take long, and you can use it regardless of whether you’ve met your goal or are struggling to get there.”

Recently, Balcetis has begun to examine visual perception in racially-charged confrontations between police and citizens. With an increase in cellphone videos of these interactions, one would think the facts would become clearer, but “we are seeing a more and more polarized society, and we wonder about the role of perception in this,” Balcetis says. So far, she is finding there are ways to predict which viewers will side with the police officer versus the potential offender, but it’s complicated. Having a strong affiliation with one group (e.g. African-Americans or police officers) doesn’t on its own predict a viewer’s opinion of who was in the right or wrong, but it does when combined with how frequently the person looks at (and therefore pays attention to) the two people in the video. Balcetis is now beginning to look at other factors, too, including people’s feelings about the police and their past histories, like whether they have experienced stop and frisk procedures. With collaborator Yael Granot, Balcetis is exploring the effectiveness of strategies to shift how people watch the video. For now, what is clear is that we should all be cautious about the way we interpret these videos – and other perceptions of our world. Visual attention plays a big role in our beliefs, but “People really don’t know what their eyes are doing,” Balcetis points out. “Even if they have the best of intentions to get it right, they are biased.”

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Emily Balcetis is a recipient of the Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences (FABBS) Foundation Early Career Impact Award, presented during the annual meeting of the Society of Experimental Social Psychology in Santa Monica, CA.

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