Mind & Body

Perceptual Creep Ensures You'll Find What You're Looking For (Even If It's Not There)

We all know that beauty is in the eye of beholder, but according to new research, everything is in the eye of the beholder. Whatever you look for — whether it's a threatening face, unethical research practices, or the color blue — you'll find. Even if it's not really there, you'll seamlessly (and unconsciously!) broaden your definition of the thing you're seeking until, voila! You think it's right in front of you.

Our Creepy Perceptions

This phenomenon is called "perceptual creep," and according to a study recently published in Science, it influences everything from concrete assessments to abstract thinking. In the more straightforward component of the study, researchers showed participants 1,000 dots one at a time in shades that ranged from blue to purple, and they had to determine whether each dot was blue. For the first 200 trials, the dots were evenly distributed on the blue-purple spectrum so that about half of the dots were bluer than not. In subsequent trials, though, researchers started to slowly phase out the blue until the vast majority of the dots were on the purple end of the spectrum.

In each trial, though, the participants identified roughly the same number of dots as blue. As the dots grew purpler, their definition of "blue" simply expanded to include more purple tones. This persisted even when participants were told in advance that there would be more purple dots than blue ones in the end. It even persisted after participants were offered a cash prize for not terming purplish dots blue.

Researchers found similar perceptual creep when they asked people to do more complex tasks. They were asked to judge faces as threatening or not, for instance, and research proposals as ethical or not. As the sets of faces and proposals got gentler and more ethical, participants started to identify faces and proposals they had previously considered fine as threatening or unethical.

Do We All Have Bad Judgment?

Not exactly. This study really suggests that we think of even seemingly objective concepts in relative terms. We think we can identify purple circles, but really, we're identifying the purplest circle we've seen recently. The human mind doesn't categorize objects and ideas the way a computer would; the categories in our heads are porous. This has huge implications for ... basically everything.

Matt Warren of Science Magazine, for instance, thinks that perceptual creep could account for a lot of cynicism in the world. "Humanity has made great strides in reducing social issues like poverty and illiteracy, but as these problems become less common, previously minor issues start to seem much more problematic," he writes. However, perceptual creep could just as easily account for optimism in times of strife — as things get worse, previously serious problems start to seem minor.

Perceptual creep can also happen on an even broader cultural level. There, it's called "concept creep," and some argue it helps explain rising rates of psychiatric diagnoses in the western world. It also explains some more pedestrian phenomena, like the way "politeness" now allows for checking your phone some, but not too much, during dinner.

"Creep" has a negative connotation, but none of this is inherently harmful. Concept and perceptual creep just mean humans tend to expand and contract the categories in our heads, rather than noting the ways the outside world is constantly in flux. This is essential to survival. Everyone's idea of happiness and success, for instance, should expand and contract so we don't get too deflated or elated. Yet by the same token, when humans categorize things, we need clear, concrete parameters for our categories, or our instincts could lead us astray.

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For even more ways your mind plays tricks on you, check out "You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You're Deluding Yourself" by David McRaney. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Are These Dots Purple or Blue?

Written by Mae Rice July 23, 2018

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