Seeing mountains in molehills: Embodied visual perception of the environment

In one study, we how physical and mental resources interact to influence perceptions. Specifically, we tested people’s perceptions of distance to a finish line as a function of both their physical fitness and the strength of their motivation to make it there (Cole, Balcetis, & Zhang, 2013). We first measured waist-to-hip ratios to gauge people’s physical states; people with higher waist-to-hip ratios are generally less physically fit. Then participants learned they would perform a difficult physical task we referred to as a weighted walking test. In the task, participants had to wear heavy ankle weights while walking quickly to a finish line with a challenging gait. For unfit participants, just like marathon runners at the point of exhaustion, the demands of the task may seem to outweigh the physical resources they have at their disposal.

We then manipulated how motivated participants would be to perform the task. Specifically, we told half of participants they had done poorly on a series of initial fitness tests and so to be considered physically fit they had to perform well on the weighted walking test. Unsurprisingly, these participants reported being very motivated to ace the last test to demonstrate their fitness. We told the other half of participants that they had performed well in the first tests and their performance on the weighted walking test would do little to affect their overall score, as they were already deemed physically fit. These participants reported feeling rather unmotivated to do well since they had already demonstrated their superior fitness. We measured perception and found that among participants who were physically unfit but psychologically motivated, the distance seemed short. In fact, it seemed just as short as it did for people who were actually fit. Strong motivations seemed to trump deficient physical resources, giving people the impression that their environment was easier to traverse.

This led us to ask if feeling energized impacts perceptions of the environment in the same way that being physically energized does. Perhaps when people are motivated they feel psychologically energized, and just as do sugary beverages or physical virility, it affects the way people see the world.

To test the concept, we again enlisted participants to complete a weighted walking test, but before they did, they drank a cold cup of tea (Cole & Balcetis, 2013). We told some the tea was a special energy-producing tea containing a stimulant that enhances alertness and energetic feelings. We told others that the tea contained a sedative that increases relaxation and reduces energetic feelings. All of the participants actually drank the same, non-caffeinated, Lipton herbal tea. The tea contained no stimulants or calories and was not able to influence physical energy. Nonetheless, those participants who drank the tea that they thought would energize them reported feeling more awake, invigorated, and energized than those participants who drank the tea they thought would calm them. And their distance estimates reflected the difference. Participants who believed they drank the energy tea perceived the distance to the finish line to be shorter than participants who believed they drank the calming tea. Feeling energized had the same effect on perception as actually being physically energized. The mind, as well as the body, exert a powerful influence over how people see the world around them.

Seeing is for doing

Why would energy, regardless of whether physical or psychological in nature, influence perception? One theory is that it may help to guide action (Proffitt, 2006; Cole & Balcetis, 2013). Visual perception may take cues from physical and psychological states in order to inform decisions about how and whether to act. When people are tired, unfit, or unmotivated, the environment may appear more cumbersome or monstrous. If it appears difficult to traverse, people may subsequently forego attempts at moving within it. Conversely, when people are well-rested, fit, or motivated the environment may appear easier to traverse and people may be more likely to act within it. The embodied nature of visual perception is likely to be, for the most part, an adaptive and important step in the regulation of behavior as people look around the environment and weigh the costs and benefits of moving within it.

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