Science, Art, Litt, Science based Art & Science Communication

Why Motivated perception influences your understanding of science its acceptance or rejection

After entering the arena of science communication, I encountered very strange human psychological phenomena.

Like motivated reasoning, which I discussed earlier, we have a thing called motivated perception.

One of my uncles was in love with a woman some 25 years back. When he brought the lady to his home to meet his family members, almost all of them refused to give their consent. Why? Because, according to them, she 's 'ugly' and didn't suit my uncle who 's handsome. Then my uncle told his family members to see her with his eyes and not with their own eyes, went ahead and married the lady much to the discomfort of his family members! His family members didn't have a choice after his marriage but to accept his definition of beauty. Here motivated perception played a role in my uncle choosing the lady as well as his family members finally accepting the lady.

Most of the time your eyes see what they want to see, not what really exists! You see faces of Gods in the clouds, art works on Mars, ghosts in old buildings and what not! This phenomenon, called motivated perception, has been explored in psychological research for decades. Indeed, the world as we conceive it in our awareness is not exactly an accurate representation of what it truly is. Our perception is often biased, selective, and malleable.

Even our desires can affect what we see by impacting the way we process visual information. For example, when presented with an ambiguous figure that could be interpreted either as the letter B or the number 13, participants in one study were more likely to report seeing that which aligned with desirable outcomes over less desirable ones (in this case, drinking orange juice if they saw a letter, or drinking a foul-smelling smoothie if they saw a number).

When India and Pakistan play cricket matches, Indians think Pakistan is trying to cheat while Pakistanis think Indians are cheating them. Neutral umpires and their rulings don't come into the picture at all while blaming the other teams!

Why are we prone to seeing what we want to see? Recent research published in Nature Human Behavior demonstrates how our motivations and desires can give rise to two biases: a perceptual bias (when our motivations have a top-down influence on our perceptions) and a response bias (when we report seeing what we wish to see). The study , led by researchers from Stanford University, explores how these biases affect our perceptions. It proposes underlying neurocomputational mechanisms that guide these judgements.

In the study I mentioned above, participants were asked to see faces and scenes and report what they are seeing, i.e., their perception.

How do human beings decide whether they were looking at reality or what they want to see? It all begins in the eyes. The information travels from the eyes to the primary visual cortex in the occipital lobe of the brain.

One theory (two-streams hypothesis) suggests that information is further processed in two visual streams: the ventral stream, which is thought to be responsible for encoding what we are looking at; and the dorsal stream, which identifies where within our environment the visual event occurs.

In the ventral stream, there are specific areas containing neurons that are more selective for perceiving faces, and neurons that are more specialized in scenes. A perceptual judgment can then be made by comparing the activity of the neurons in face-selective or scene-selective regions: The region that shows more activity should “win,” and the category represented by these neurons should be selected.

What the results of the present study suggest is that the neurons in these regions can also be influenced by attentional and reward systems. In fact, researchers were able to investigate the corresponding neural mechanisms of the two biases and explore how the participants’ motivation to see one category (face) over the other (scene) influenced their perceptual judgements.

As such, greater motivational biases were linked to more neural activity in ventral visual areas of the brain, while activity in the nucleus accumbent—a central region of the brain’s reward system—correlated with participants’ response biases.

Our desires and goals have an undisputable influence on our lives. As research is demonstrating, these influences taint not only our cognition, emotions, and behaviour, but also—quite literally—how we see the world.

The understanding of this human psychology has important implications. The first one has to do with our representation of the world. In most cases, scientists would like to have an objective view of reality in order to make accurate judgements based on objective evidence.

But others might get influenced by other things and desire to see the world around in that sense.

For instance, Science now explained how day and night happen. The change between day and night is caused by the rotation of the Earth on its axis. ... Also, daylight hours are affected by the tilt of the Earth's axis and its path around the sun. However, I have seen people in remote villages who still think that day and night is caused by the Sun God moving around Earth in a seven horse-driven chariot. When I told them that 's not true, they found it difficult to believe it. Such is their religious and cultural conditioning of their minds. Here their desire to put a higher authority in the sky to make things happen for them to see shape up their perception, not reality.

If we are aware of how desires colour our perception, we can take steps towards mentally correcting for the bias and this really helps in science communication.

The second implication concerns the way we relate to others—in particular, those who don’t share our  scientific reality. Knowing that others could be seeing things differently from us, because of their mind games and that neither of us is necessarily closer to each other, we would be better able to empathize with how they act and feel because of various factors that are influencing them. An insight that would help us make them understand our world too.

Science communicators, are you now ready to deal with this motivated perception in a better way?

Do you now know why people reject vaccines, spheroid Earth concept, GM foods, evolution, AGW (or man-created climate change) and several other scientific theories?

So get ready for the battles in more prepared and effective ways.

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