Why you only see what you want to see

Are our brains manipulated by our biases and motivations? How often has your experience of your favorite team’s match been completely different from the one experienced by supporters of the other side?

It was after a brutal — and highly controversial — game of American football between Dartmouth and Princeton in 1951 that two psychologists, Albert Hastorf and Hadley Cantril, began to wonder whether the two teams had actually been playing the same match. This phenomenon is called “motivated perception” — I only see what I really want to see — and it resulted in the well-known Princeton-Dartmouth study by the two researchers. It also raised a number of important questions, including: “Am I lying to myself?”

Well, the answer is no. In a July 2019 study, Yuan Chang Leong and his fellow authors show that we really do “see” things differently (even when we’re looking at the same object or event), depending on what we want to see. We are subject to influences such as context, what we’re focusing our attention on, stereotypes, motivation, and reward — all of which trigger a response bias or even a perception bias. A solution to this problem may be difficult because our brains are smart, predictive, and try to be efficient. Our biases, on the other hand, operate silently in our minds. The only thing we can do is refuse to give in to the temptation of forming opinions too quickly and try to be a little bit more reflective.


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