Saturday, September 13, 2008

Psychology: What did you really see? You'd be surprised!

I'll be reviewing a book called The Design Matrix: A Consilience of Clues by Mike Gene. He recounts an interesting experiment that demonstrates the extent to which we perceive what we expect to perceived, as described by Daniel Chandler, a lecturer in Media and Communication Studies at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth:
In an experiment by Brewer and Treyens (1981), individual participants were asked to wait in an office [photo]. The experimenter said that this was his office and that they should wait there whilst he checked the laboratory to see if the previous participant had finished. After 35 seconds, he returned and took the participant to another room where they were asked to recall everything in the room in which they had been waiting. People showed a strong tendency to recall objects consistent with the typical "office schema." Nearly everyone remembered the desk and the chair next to it. Only eight out of the 30 recalled the skull (!), few recalled the wine bottle or the coffee pot, and only one recalled the picnic basket. Some recalled items that had not been there at all: 9 remembered books. This shows how people may introduce new items consistent with the schema. (pp. 125-26)
Gene notes,
The experiment is intriguing in that most people failed to notice a skull sittiing on the desk, while many others recalled seeing books that never existed. The "schema" that Chandler refers to is essentially the mind-set or context that we bring to the situation. Since the people knew they were in an office, they failed to notice objects that are not normally in an office.
Or, as Sherlock Holmes liked to say, "You see but you do not observe."

Does this mean we can't trust anything we see? No, biasese may interfere with our ability to observe.