Category Archives: About Perception

The Power of Sorry

sorryThe Child Psychology Research Blog is posting a series of reports on research presented at the Annual Convention of the Association for Psychological Science.  The latest post, highly recommended, is about the effects of apologies on children’s emotions.

The post describes in detail the study methodology and results so I won’t rehash those here, but one finding from the study in particular I think merits more discussion:

Receiving an apology makes the recipient feel better by affecting the recipient’s perception of the wrongdoer’s emotions.

In other words, children in the study who received an apology felt better afterward because the apology indicated that the other person felt bad about what he or she did. Sounds simple enough. From the result, the author draws this conclusion:

It is likely that apologies work because the apology and our perception of the other child’s sadness tell us something about how fair and predictable is our world. That is, thinking that the other child feels sad: 1) may affect our attributions so that we may no longer think that the other child is mean or did it on purpose, or at least not without realizing that it was the wrong thing to do. 2) knowing that the other person agrees that it was the wrong thing to do reaffirms our view of the world as just and predictable, since the other’s sadness tells us that people in general don’t do things like this, because after all, it was the wrong thing to do.

This strikes me as important, if for no other reason than the dual nature of the statement. One one hand, it’s a positive that something as simple as an apology can affirm a view of the world as just and predictable – but on the other hand, the world isn’t just and predictable.  Yet it would be the pinnacle of cynicism to propose that children are deluded by apologies into believing that the world they’re entering is more gentle and orderly than it really is. 

Which makes me wonder, if this conclusion is correct, then are the civil rudiments of human social behavior (like apologizing) a way of keeping each other sane, since an unmitigated appreciation of how unpredictable the world really is would push us closer to the edge of the abyss?  When you apologize to someone, maybe you’re acting as a temporary life preserver whether or not you truly feel bad about what you did.  It seems from this study that we arrive in the world with neural wiring predisposing us to wanting apologies from others, but also to giving apologies to others: both actions provide a benefit.

Then again, there’s this study suggesting that an apology may actually be an obstacle to forgiveness. Go figure.



Filed under About Perception, About Research

What Might Make You Trust a Stranger?


by David DiSalvo

It comes as no surprise that people tend to prefer others of the same in-group. If you’re a diehard supporter of a political candidate and someone drives by with a bumper sticker endorsing the candidate, you feel a hint of “inness” with that person. If someone drives by with a bumper sticker of the candidate’s opponent, you feel a twinge of “otherness” about that person.  If asked why, you might say that the first person probably shares many of your views and you’re on the same team, more or less. The second driver is showing with the opponent’s bumper sticker that she’s on the other team.  In effect, you feel a sense of in-group trust with the first person that you don’t feel with the second.

But why, exactly, trust a stranger any more than another stranger if you don’t really know either of them?  That question was addressed in a study in the April issue of Psychological Science.  The study begins by establishing two possible bases for group-based trust. The first is stereotyping — people tend to judge in-group members as nicer, more helpful, generous, trustworthy and fair. The second is expectation — people tend to expect relatively better treatment from in-group members because they are thought to value, and want to further, other in-group members’ interests.

Study participants were offered a choice between an unknown sum of money from an in-group member or an out-group member (and were told that the in-group and out-group members controlled the amount of money to allocate as they desired).  The initial result was that participants overwhelmingly chose the in-group member option.  And, surprisingly, this result held true even when the stereotype of the in-group was more negative than that of the out-group. Good, bad or indifferent, the stereotype was ignored in favor of group identity. 

But, when participants were told that the in-group money giver didn’t know they were part of the same group, the situation changed.  When this was the case, participants resorted to making their choice on the basis of stereotype.  If the in-group was portrayed negatively, then the participants were more likely to choose the out-group member option, and visa versa.

So this study suggests that when members of the in-group are mutually aware of their inness, there’s an expectation of better treatment than would be received from an out-grouper. But when that awareness is muddied, reliance on stereotypes kicks in. 

This analysis gets really interesting when focused on electronic communication. Online, most people are not aware of others’ inness or outness. According to the results of this study, in these cases we’d expect most people to rely on group stereotypes when deciding who to trust (follow, read, etc), and social networking provides fertile ground to test this hypothesis in real-time.
Foddy, M., Platow, M., & Yamagishi, T. (2009). Group-Based Trust in Strangers: The Role of Stereotypes and Expectations Psychological Science, 20 (4), 419-422 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02312.x

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Filed under About Belief, About Perception, About Research

How Language Shapes Our World

42-15762988What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. –Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about. –Benjamin Lee Whorf

Here’s an experiment to try out:  find a black marker and two paper bags; on one bag write the word “Rose.”  On the other write the words “Chili Peppers.”  Now put rose petals into each of the bags and close them up.  Find a few people willing to lend their sniffing power to your cause and ask them to sniff each bag (making sure that they can read the labels as well).  Then ask them to report on what they smell in each bag. 

Will, as Shakespeare claimed, “that which we call a rose by any other name smell as sweet”? 

According to Stanford University psychology professor Lera Boroditsky, the answer is no.  Her research on the shaping power of language was featured on an excellent National Public Radio science piece this week. 

Focusing on the grammatical gender differences between German and Spanish, Boroditsky’s work indicates that the gender our langauge assigns to a given noun strongly influences us to unconsciously give that noun characteristics of the grammatical gender.  

One example she discussed is the word “bridge.” In German, bridge (die brucke) is a feminine noun; in Spanish, bridge (el puente) is a masculine noun. Boroditsky found that when asked to describe a bridge, native German speakers used words like “beautiful, elegant, slender.” When native Spanish speakers were asked the same question, they used words like “strong, sturdy, towering.”

This worked the other way around as well. The word “key” is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish. When asked to describe a key, native German speakers used words like “jagged, heavy, hard, metal.” Spanish speakers used words like “intricate, golden, lovely.” 

Boroditsky even created her own language (called Gumbuzi), with its own feminine and masculine grammar assignments, to test the hypothesis from scratch.  After only one day of learning the new language, participants began using  descriptions of nouns influenced by grammatical gender.

Boroditsky’s work suggests that how we see the world is strongly influenced by the grammar we internalize. From the transcript:

The grammar we learn from our parents, whether we realize it or not, affects our sensual experience of the world. Spaniards and Germans can see the same things, wear the same cloths, eat the same foods and use the same machines. But deep down, they are having very different feelings about the world about them.

You can listen to the entire story here, including more about the test of Shakespeare’s quote. The piece is just over seven minutes long.


Filed under About Perception, About Research

Finding the Money Illusion in the Brain

moneymind2One of the daggers that have pierced the heart of the long-held economic rationality assumption (that we are all rational actors on the economic stage) is the “money illusion” proposition.  Rather than only rationally considering the real value of money (the value of goods that it can buy), we actually consider a combination of the real value and the nominal value (the amount of currency) – and sometimes we ignore the real value altogether.

Using an example from the book Choices, Values and Frames by psychologist Daniel Kahneman, let’s say that you receive a 2% salary increase. Unfortunately, the rate of inflation when you receive this increase is 4%.  In real terms, you are actually in the hole by 2%, which, under the rationality assumption, we’d expect would elicit a negative reaction — the same as we’d expect if someone got a 2% pay cut.  But this isn’t how most people react. Rather, the reaction to the real loss of 2% is tempered by the reaction to the nominal gain of 2%.  In effect, the nominal evaluation interferes with the real evaluation, hence the money illusion.

Now a new fMRI study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has tested whether the brain’s reward circuitry exhibits the money illusion, and it turns out that it does.  From the study abstract:

Subjects received prizes in 2 different experimental conditions that were identical in real economic terms, but differed in nominal terms. Thus, in the absence of money illusion there should be no differences in activation in reward-related brain areas. In contrast, we found that areas of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), which have been previously associated with the processing of anticipatory and experienced rewards, and the valuation of goods, exhibited money illusion. We also found that the amount of money illusion exhibited by the vmPFC was correlated with the amount of money illusion exhibited in the evaluation of economic transactions.

illusionsKahneman often uses a perceptual illustration to show how the money illusion works.  In the image to the left, there are two ways to interpret what we see: as two dimensional figures or as three dimensional objects.  If asked to evaluate the relative size of the figures, it’s necessary to rely on a two-dimensional interpretation to arrive at the correct answer. But, the three-dimensional assessment of the objects’ size biases our perception because it is more accessible, making it difficult to see that the objects are all exactly the same size. 

Same goes for how we perceive money: the real evaluation necessary to arrive at the correct answer is biased by the nominal evaluation that makes arriving at this answer difficult.  In a perfectly rational world, that wouldn’t be the case, but by now we know this ain’t a perfectly rational world — and as this study shows, we’re beginning to identify the brain dynamics underlying that fact. 

Image via Very Evolved
Weber, B., Rangel, A., Wibral, M., & Falk, A. (2009). The medial prefrontal cortex exhibits money illusion Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0901490106


Filed under About Neuroscience, About Perception, About Research

Everyone Loves a Dead Leader

staying-powerIf you are a leader, and still alive, here’s what you need to know:  you still have time to change peoples’ impression of you.  A final, public verdict won’t be rendered until you pass into that good night.  That’s according to a forthcoming study in Leadership Quarterly, conducted by Scott Allison, professor of psychology at the University of Richmond.

The study suggests that, in general, leaders are viewed more favorably when they are known to be dead. Surprisingly, this effect even held true when the leader was viewed as incompetent while alive (you listening George W?). 

But if a leader acted immorally while alive and didn’t turn things around before the big goodbye, the posthumous public attitude was especially severe. 

Celebrities were also studied and apparently receive comparable treatment. Media coverage of Princess Diana, for example, was much more favorable for several years after her death than several years before.  Same for JFK.  The sole notable exception to that rule: Richard Nixon.

This seems like a variation of the “halo effect” with the additional dynamic of death being the final arbiter of opinion. For example, Jimmy Carter’s missteps as President led many to believe that he was enormously incompetent, but most people still considered him to be a decent guy.  If he had died soon after leaving office, that would have been the final public verdict — incompetent, but a nice guy.  But in the years since being President, he has shown remarkable competence and resolve with successful projects like Habitat for Humanity, so presumably if he died today the final verdict would be much more positive.

What I wonder, though, is how much time factors into this.  Carter would benefit from being out of office for 30 years, plenty of time to rebuild his persona.  What about Bill Clinton?  He was accused of “immoral acts” while President, but was (is) also revered for his intelligence and competence.  If he died today, which image would win out? 

I suspect that the remembrance effect increases with time, in either direction. Lincoln died on an upnote, and it’s gone up and up ever since, flirting at times with deity status. Nixon went down in immoral flames and died, though many years later, with that as his defining mark, one likely to stick with his name for perpetuity.

hat tip: Boston Globe

Allison, S. T., Eylon, D., Beggan, J.K., & Bachelder, J. (2009). The demise of leadership: Positivity and negativity in evaluations of dead leaders. The Leadership Quarterly

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Feeling Helpless? Find a Pattern

albertaindianScientific American Mind has a thought-provoking short piece on research that finds people are more likely to see patterns that don’t exist when they feel helpless and out of control.  Pattern location is comforting; it creates the sense that we are in control of something, even if that control and the something it’s linked with are illusory.  From the article:

In six experiments, psychologists Jennifer Whitson of the University of Texas at Austin and Adam Galinsky of Northwestern University manipulated subjects’ sense of control. In some trials, they gave participants either random feedback or no feedback at all on a tricky experimental task; in others, they asked participants to recall a situation in which they lacked control or one in which they had full control. Results showed that not having control caused participants to mistakenly see an image in a field of static, to smell conspiracy in other people’s benign behavior, to embrace superstitious beliefs and to perceive nonexistent stock-market trends. Such illusory perceptions evaporated when participants were first denied control but then given an opportunity to write about their most deeply held values, an activity that bolsters psychological security and quells feelings of helplessness.

Neurologist Steve Novella at NeuroLogica posted about these studies a few months ago here. He notes that the patterns that receive the most attention are usually visual, but can also be auditory. From his post:

Visually this phenomenon is known as pareidolia – seeing a face in the clouds, or the outline of the virgin Mary in a window stain. There is also auditory pareidolia – hearing words in static or random noise. Some ghost hunters claim electronic voice phenomena (EVP) as evidence for spirits, but they are just listening to hours of recording seeking illusory auditory patterns.

And, of course, then we have perceived patterns that translate into superstitions…

Superstitions have their roots in pattern recognition. A baseball pitcher might notice, for example, that he pitched better than average on a day when he forgot to change his underwear. That’s a pattern. So he doesn’t change his underwear for the next game and also pitches well – the pattern is confirmed. He now is convinced of the fabulous powers of his magical dirty underwear, and he dare not change them lest his pitching suffer. Of course, the magic does not always work, and lucky underwear can go sour and become cursed underwear without notice. This is superstitious thinking – inventing magical rules ad hoc to impose a pattern and explanation on unpredictable events. It is a desperate grasp for control over the uncontrollable.

All of which begs the question — does feeling helpless increase tendencies to see patterns that do exist? 

By the way, so many people thought they saw a grinning demon’s face in the hair behind the ear of Queen Elizabeth on the 1954 Canadian dollar series that it was pulled from circulation to be reprinted.  Do you see it?


More information about the rock formation pattern in the upper right of this post can be found here.

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The Laws of Spreading Rumors

air-jordan-15-rumor-1Psychology Today has a lengthy article online about the dynamics of how rumors spread.  The author suggests, I believe correctly, that no one is completely immune to spreading rumors. Gullibility may be a prerequisite for swallowing more outlandish rumors, but even skeptics pass on their share (the owners of, the famous rumor-debunking website, are quoted in the article that even they’ve been duped).

Of course, sometimes rumors turn out to be true. The article cites research by DiFonzo and Prashant Bordia, of the University of South Australia, that  found in groups with an established hierarchy—like large offices—the scuttlebutt you hear about company affairs is around 95 percent accurate.

Here’s a snippet from the piece followed by the “8 1/2 Laws of Rumor Spread.”  Check out the article for full elaboration.

At its core, a rumor is just an unverified scrap of information we pass among ourselves to make sense of the world. In one case study conducted at Ohio University by psychologist Mark Pezzo, students had heard that someone on campus had died of meningitis. The story spread because the anxious students were trying to find out what was going on: “Is the rumor true?” “How do you get meningitis?” “I heard that everyone on campus will need to have a painful spinal tap, did you hear that?” In the marketplace of misinformation, fit rumors survive and spread like epidemics, while unfit rumors die quick deaths. So what separates the fit from the unfit? What, in short, are the laws of effective rumors?

1: Successful rumors needle our anxieties and emotions.

2: Rumors stick if they’re somewhat surprising but still fit with our existing biases.

3: Easily swayed people are more important than influential people in passing on a rumor.

4: The more you hear a rumor, the more you’ll buy it—even if you’re hearing that it’s false.

5: Rumors reflect the zeitgeist.

6: Sticky rumors are simple and concrete.

7: Rumors that last are difficult to disprove.

8: We are eager to believe bad things about people we envy.

Possible 9th Law: “Sometimes, there is no “why.” Often, we tell remarkable tales to build relationships or show off our yarn-spinning prowess—not necessarily because we think they’re true.”

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