Seeing mountains in molehills: Embodied visual perception of the environment

The mind matters:  Visual perception is motivated

Just as our bodies can impact our perceptual experiences of the world, so can our minds. Visual perception is not only embodied but is motivated as well. Recent studies from our lab suggest the strength of people’s motivations can influence how far away an object appears. In our studies, some participants saw items that were highly desirable and relevant to their goals and others saw items that were not. They then estimated how far away the objects appeared (Balcetis & Dunning, 2010). For example, in one of the studies, we placed a bottle of water a certain distance away from the participants. Some of the participants had just eaten salty pretzels, and others had just drank several glasses of water. We asked how far away the water bottle appeared. The thirsty participants who were presumably more motivated to drink the water perceived the water bottle as closer than did the quenched participants. People’s psychological states—their goals and motivations to attain an object—influenced how close the object appeared.

Such research may provide important insights into how people are able to persevere when their physical resources are scarce.  As any runner, rock climber, or cross country skier can attest, energy does not come solely from the body. In addition to physical resources, people’s mental resources influence their ability to take on difficult tasks. Consider the New York City Marathon. On the morning of the race, tens of thousands of runners stand at the entrance to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in Staten Island and gear up for the 26.2 miles (about 42 km) ahead of them. As the runners weave their way through the five boroughs of the city, they face physical and mental challenges. The most formidable of those challenges occurs for many runners at about mile 20 (about 30 km). It is around this time in the race, as they cross the Willis Avenue Bridge and head into the Bronx, that many runners hit “the wall.” Physiological cues such as exhaustion, dehydration, and severe muscle fatigue suggest the runner’s physical energy is nearly spent. And it nearly is. The average human body can only store about 18-20 miles’ worth of energy-producing glycogen, and runners at that point have quite literally run out of fuel (Latta, 2003). In spite of that, many marathoners are able to push through and continue their run. At the last NYC marathon in 2011, 99 percent of runners—47,340 out of the 47,763 who started—crossed the finish line.           

How do people continue on when their physical resources are spent? As 1980 Boston Marathon winner Jacqueline Gareau said “The body does not want you to do this. As you run, it tells you to stop. But the mind must be strong. It is not age; it is not diet. It is the will to succeed” (Luff, 2013). Psychological states can be powerful determinants of people’s ability to take on physical tasks. A comprehensive analysis of Olympic athletes found that what distinguishes winning Olympic athletes from losing ones is not only differences in physical preparation and prowess but also, and sometimes even more so, differences in psychological qualities such as confidence, commitment, and motivation (Greenleaf, Gould, & Dieffenbach, 2001). Motivation and drive can lead to feelings that one is energized, and can even increase cardiovascular responses associated with gearing up for action. For example, when people are motivated to take on challenging tasks, systolic blood pressure—a marker of the body’s readiness to act—increases (Gendolla & Richter, 2005; Wright, 1996). Psychological factors can act as sources of energy as people engage in activity in the world around them. Just like for the marathoners struggling against extreme fatigue and facing “the wall,” psychological resources and willpower are particularly important when people are tired or physical resources are nearly spent. One way people may overcome exhaustion and resist the urge to quit is by seeing the world as easier to traverse, a visual “trick” that can occur when people are highly motivated.

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