Our Perception Of Reality Is Distorted By Our Expectations, New Research Shows

Nothing is as it seems. Havoc/Shutterstock

The world around you is not quite as it seems. Your sense of reality (for all it's worth) is a gullible fool that’s easily deceived by tricks, prejudices, assumptions, and exceptions. A fascinating new study has attempted to understand how our perception of what we see is distorted by preconceptions of what we expect to see. Using a series of real-life experiments, the researchers discovered that people perceive the actions of others as they expect to see them, not as they actually are.

The researchers explain that humans, as well as non-human primates, interpret others' actions as purposeful and goal-directed. We also assume that this action is optimized to be as efficient and rational as possible. In other words, we assume most behavior is performed for a logical reason, usually in the easiest way possible. However, in reality, this is not always the way the world works. 

"Primates interpret behaviour as goal-directed and expect others to achieve goals by the most efficient means possible," study author Matthew Hudson said in a statement. "While this is accepted among psychologists, little has been known about its underlying mechanisms."

As explained in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, psychologists tested out this idea by gathering 85 people to watch a video of a person simply reaching over a table to grab a ball. In some screenings of the actions, an obstruction was put in between the hand and the ball. After the clip was shown, participants then had to “draw” on the touchscreen what they perceived the trajectory of the hand's movement to be.

Participants watched these scenes play on a touchscreen computer. University of Plymouth

The findings indicated that people's perceptions of what happened were based on what they had expected the hand to do – namely to maximize efficiency – not what it actually did. This, the researchers argue, reinforces the idea that our expectations and assumptions can massively influence how we see the world.

This doesn't just have implications in obscure experiments, it can also be seen in the way we engage with our surroundings and even in our social interactions.

"Firstly, it shows that people make predictions when they see the actions of others. It has been argued for a long while that people constantly make such predictions, and use them to figure out if other people see the same things as we do," explained Hudson. 

“Finally, the results show that people "see" others' actions in the light of their own expectations," he added.

"If you see someone look at something with a neutral expression and think they are angry, they might look a bit angrier than they really are. This might explain why people often get others' actions so wrong and see ambiguous behavior as meaningful."

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