Emily Balcetis – Psychologist
Vision is the most important and prioritized sense that we have. We are constantly looking at the world around us, and quickly we identify and make sense of what it is that we see. Let’s just start with an example of that very fact. I’m going to show you a photograph of a person, just for a second or two, and I’d like for you to identify what emotion is on his face. Ready? Here you go.
Go with your gut reaction. Okay. What did you see? Well, we actually surveyed over 120 individuals, and the results were mixed. People did not agree on what emotion they saw on his face. Maybe you saw discomfort. That was the most frequent response that we received. But if you asked the person on your left, they might have said regret or skepticism, and if you asked somebody on your right, they might have said something entirely different, like hope or empathy.
So we are all looking at the very same face again. We might see something entirely different, because perception is subjective. What we think we see is actually filtered through our own mind’s eye. Of course, there are many other examples of how we see the world through own mind’s eye. I’m going to give you just a few.
So dieters, for instance, see apples as larger than people who are not counting calories. Softball players see the ball as smaller if they’ve just come out of a slump, compared to people who had a hot night at the plate. And actually, our political beliefs also can affect the way we see other people, including politicians. So my research team and I decided to test this question.
In 2008, Barack Obama was running for president for the very first time, and we surveyed hundreds of Americans one month before the election. What we found in this survey was that some people, some Americans, think photographs like these best reflect how Obama really looks. Of these people, 75% voted for Obama in the actual election. Other people, though, thought photographs like these best reflect how Obama really looks. 89% of these people voted for McCain. We presented many photographs of Obama one at a time, so people did not realize that what we were changing from one photograph to the next was whether we had artificially lightened or darkened his skin tone.
So how is that possible? How could it be that when I look at a person, an object, or an event, I see something very different than somebody else does? Well, the reasons are many, but one reason requires that we understand a little bit more about how our eyes work. So vision scientists know that the amount of information that we can see at any given point in time, what we can focus on, is actually relatively small.
What we can see with great sharpness and clarity and accuracy is the equivalent of the surface area of our thumb on our outstretched arm. Everything else around that is blurry, rendering much of what is presented to our eyes as ambiguous. But we have to clarify and make sense of what it is that we see, and it’s our mind that helps us fill in that gap. As a result, perception is a subjective experience, and that’s how we end up seeing through our own mind’s eye.
So, I’m a social psychologist, and it’s questions like these that really intrigue me. I am fascinated by those times when people do not see eye to eye. Why is it that somebody might literally see the glass as half full, and somebody literally sees it as half empty? What is it about what one person is thinking and feeling that leads them to see the world in an entirely different way? And does that even matter?
So to begin to tackle these questions, my research team and I decided to delve deeply into an issue that has received international attention: our health and fitness. Across the world, people are struggling to manage their weight, and there is a variety of strategies that we have to help us keep the pounds off. For instance, we set the best of intentions to exercise after the holidays, but actually, the majority of Americans find that their New Year’s resolutions are broken by Valentine’s Day. We talk to ourselves in very encouraging ways, telling ourselves this is our year to get back into shape, but that is not enough to bring us back to our ideal weight. So why?
Of course, there is no simple answer, but one reason, I argue, is that our mind’s eye might work against us. Some people may literally see exercise as more difficult, and some people might literally see exercise as easier. So, as a first step to testing these questions, we gathered objective measurements of individuals’ physical fitness. We measured the circumference of their waist, compared to the circumference of their hips. A higher waist-to-hip ratio is an indicator of being less physically fit than a lower waist-to-hip ratio. After gathering these measurements, we told our participants that they would walk to a finish line while carrying extra weight in a sort of race.
But before they did that, we asked them to estimate the distance to the finish line. We thought that the physical states of their body might change how they perceived the distance. So what did we find? Well, waist-to-hip ratio predicted perceptions of distance. People who were out of shape and unfit actually saw the distance to the finish line as significantly greater than people who were in better shape. People’s states of their own body changed how they perceived the environment. But so too can our mind.
In fact, our bodies and our minds work in tandem to change how we see the world around us. That led us to think that maybe people with strong motivations and strong goals to exercise might actually see the finish line as closer than people who have weaker motivations. So to test whether motivations affect our perceptual experiences in this way, we conducted a second study.
Again, we gathered objective measurements of people’s physical fitness, measuring the circumference of their waist and the circumference of their hips, and we had them do a few other tests of fitness. Based on feedback that we gave them, some of our participants told us they’re not motivated to exercise any more. They felt like they already met their fitness goals and they weren’t going to do anything else. These people were not motivated. Other people, though, based on our feedback, told us they were highly motivated to exercise. They had a strong goal to make it to the finish line.
But again, before we had them walk to the finish line, we had them estimate the distance. How far away was the finish line? And again, like the previous study, we found that waist-to-hip ratio predicted perceptions of distance. Unfit individuals saw the distance as farther, saw the finish line as farther away, than people who were in better shape. Importantly, though, this only happened for people who were not motivated to exercise.
On the other hand, people who were highly motivated to exercise saw the distance as short. Even the most out of shape individuals saw the finish line as just as close, if not slightly closer, than people who were in better shape. So our bodies can change how far away that finish line looks, but people who had committed to a manageable goal that they could accomplish in the near future and who believed that they were capable of meeting that goal actually saw the exercise as easier. That led us to wonder, is there a strategy that we could use and teach people that would help change their perceptions of the distance, help them make exercise look easier?
So we turned to the vision science literature to figure out what should we do, and based on what we read, we came up with a strategy that we called, “Keep your eyes on the prize.” So this is not the slogan from an inspirational poster. It’s an actual directive for how to look around your environment. People that we trained in this strategy, we told them to focus their attention on the finish line, to avoid looking around, to imagine a spotlight was shining on that goal, and that everything around it was blurry and perhaps difficult to see. We thought that this strategy would help make the exercise look easier. We compared this group to a baseline group.