Monday, July 28, 2008

Social Support and the Perception of Geographical Slant

ResearchBlogging.orgYou might think that perception is a process that basically extracts information from the environment, and passes the results on for further cognitive processing. And anyone would grant that perception could lose some information along the way and make the odd mistake -- who's perfect, after all. Actually, perception is a whole lot more complicated, and often a bit strange.

One way it’s strange is that how things ‘out there’ seem, turns out sometimes to depend quite a bit on how we are at the time.

So, for example, it’s been found that perception of slopes and of distances is influenced by whether the perceiver is wearing a heavy backpack, with backpack wearers reporting steeper slopes and greater distances, even when standing still and not expecting to have to walk up the slope or over the distance. (For a review of this and related findings see Profitt 2006). We also know from social psychology experiments that subjects primed with words associated with advanced age walk more slowly in the period immediately following what they take to be the end of the task (Bargh 1990).

The authors of this study, in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, explore the relationship between social support and perceived geographical slant. (At the time of writing this entry the paper is still listed as an article in press.)

The research was simple and elegant:
Participants accompanied by a friend estimated a hill to be less steep when compared to participants who were alone (Study 1). Similarly, participants who thought of a supportive friend during an imagery task saw a hill as less steep than participants who either thought of a neutral person or a disliked person (Study 2).
Not only that:
In both studies, the effects of social relationships on visual perception appear to be mediated by relationship quality (i.e., relationship duration, interpersonal closeness, warmth). Artifacts such as mood, social desirability, and social facilitation did not account for these effects.
The result occurred for verbal and visual estimates of slant, but not for a haptic measure where subjects used their dominant hand to push a surface until they felt it was at the same slope as the target slope. This isn’t unusual – haptic measures are often more accurate, and resistant to the kinds of manipulation in question here. (For an extended discussion of the evidence relating to two separate visual systems, see Norman (2002).) Here’s the graph of results from Study 1:

This is interesting stuff. It suggests that our deliberate assessment (as determined by verbal and some other probes) is an interpretation, pricing in a variety of other considerations. There’s related work going on in some kinds of behavioural economics, for example finding that delayed food is discounted at higher rates than delayed money, even though you can use the money to buy food (e.g. Kirby and Guastello 2001).

I’m especially interested in impulsivity and decision-making, and so I’d be interested to see some work on how financial and other decision making is affected by manipulations of this sort. You’d figure that the value of the future for someone was related to her estimate of what relationships might be expected to persist. People primed to think of themselves alone might well have less interest in various kinds of planning, saving, avoiding risks, than people primed to think of lasting connections and responsibilities.

Bargh, J. 1990. ‘Auto-motives: Preconscious determinants of social interaction’, in T. Higgins and R. Sorrentino (eds.) Handbook of motivation and cognition, New York: Guilford.
Kirby, K., and Guastello, B. 2001. Making choices in anticipation of similar future choices can increase self-control. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 7: 154-164.
Norman, J. 2002. – Two Visual Systems and Two Theories of Perception: An Attempt to Reconcile the Constructivist and Ecological Approaches, Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 25, 73–144.
Proffitt, D. R. 2006. Embodied perception and the economy of action. Perspectives on
Psychological Science, 1, 110-122.

Schnall, S., Harber, K.D., Stefanucci, J.K., Proffitt, D.R.Social Support and the Perception of Geographical Slant. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, In press(In press) DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2008.04.011

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