Sunday, May 3, 2015

Motivational Influences on Perception

Further research into a slightly different aspect of the confirmation bias was carried out by Emily Balcetis and David Dunning of Cornell University.* 

They did numerous experiments to test the hypothesis that people see what they are motivated to see. One such experiment was as follows: Subjects were presented with 2 beverages, one tasty, one disgusting-looking. They were told that the one they would drink depended on whatever image flashed on the computer screen before them for only a fraction of a second. This image was ambiguous, it could be interpreted as either a horse or a seal (or in another experiment, a B or a 13). The subjects were not told what the object they would see would be, but rather were told in general terms that it would be either a farm animal or a sea animal. Different groups were assigned differently, but the results were consistent in this and all their experiments.

The participants' motivations to avoid the disgusting drink and get the desired juice biased their perceptions. In cases where the farm animal meant they would have the juice, the vast majority saw a horse. If the farm animal meant they were to have the disgusting beverage, the vast majority saw a seal.  

This is quite an eye-opening finding for those of us who have been duped by cults, namely, that we saw what we were motivated to see. I surely spent many years giving way to the bias of wishful thinking, which Dunning describes as, "the motivation to think of one’s self and one’s prospects in a favorable way, to believe that one will achieve positive outcomes while being able to avoid aversive ones, and to enhance self-worth and esteem." The implications are wide, and can be thought of in terms of so-called answered prayers, and the concept of faith and the afterlife in general. "God will take care of everything!" we blithely believed.

Not only that, but we, as humans, also tend to be less questioning of messages that we feel are favorable for us. This has obvious implications regarding cult literature. Dunning goes on to say, "Other work in motivated reasoning has shown that information consistent with a favored conclusion is held to a lower standard of scrutiny than information consistent with an unwanted one." In my case, cult literature definitely received very little scrutiny before acceptance. If I had questioned, well, that would be considered the sin of "doubt." I was motivated to believe.

This tendency not only affects information we receive at the time, but it also influences our evaluation of ourselves and our futures, and helps us to make sense of our pasts, providing an internal impetus for the self-serving confabulation and rationalization of our memories.

*See What You Want to See: Motivational Influences on Visual Perception

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