Bias in our eyes


What do you see in the “ambiguous hybrid image?”/Proceedings of the Royal Society

Our eyes have prejudices, according to psychologists studying how we view the world.


City people and country people are likely to look at the same picture and perceive different images, suggests their study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society – a peer-reviewed journal published in the United Kingdom. 

“Our findings show for the first time that (urban) people have perceptual biases to see man-made objects and suggest that extended exposure to manufactured environments in our urban-living participants has changed the way that they see the world,” the team of researchers reported in a paper titled simply “A perceptual bias for man-made objects in humans.”

Ever wonder why that Alaska hunter friend seems to have a strange ability to spot wildlife that you don’t see? This study might have the answer.

The scientists who flashed urban residents “ambiguous hybrid images” of wildlife blended with man-made objects found people favored the identification of the man-made.

Ahamed Miflah Hussain Ismail from the School of Psychology, University of Nottingham Malaysia, and colleagues from the University of London noted this should not come as a surprise.

“…Our knowledge of object frequency statistics should lead people who have lived extensively in urban areas to perceive ambiguous images as what they most expect to encounter in their urban areas (e.g. man-made objects),” they wrote. 


There is a bull moose in the 1,000 pound range bedded down about 25 feet from the camera in this photo. Can you find his antlers?/Craig Medred photo

Unconscious conditioning

Humans, the study concluded, become conditioned to look for what they learn to expect to see in their environment. The same might well apply to other senses and even other animals, which would help explain why biologist Tom S. Smith found grizzly bears in Alaska’s wild Katmai National Park and Preserve ignored bear bells.

The bells might well have caused a noise outside the bears’ frame of reference, which is not to say bear bells don’t work. In areas where bears are exposed to many encounters with people wearing bells, the bruins might become conditioned to associate bells with humans in the same way Pavlov’s dogs became conditioned to associate a clicking metronome with food.

Perceptional biases of this sort built on experience appear powerful, too.

Ismail and colleagues reported that even when they manipulated their images in an effort to make man-made objects less pronounced and natural ones more obvious, the participants in their study were still quicker to see man-made objects than natural objects.

The study is a reflection of the ways in which the environment in which we daily function can shape how we see the world around us.

The late Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Bob Stephenson observed this phenomenon while studying wolves in the Brooks Range of far north Alaska in the 1970s. Stephenson lived in the remote village of Anatuvuk Pass and noticed the people who’d grown up there were far more skilled than he was in spotting wolves and identifying the animals.

“In the past two and one-half years, the Nunamit pointed out various characters that they use in differentiating, in the field between male and female, and young and old wolves,” he later wrote. “I have been able to test the validity of most of these characters to varying degrees during the summer fieldwork and while examining and autopsying wolves shot or trapped in winter. Most sex and age-specific characteristics cannot be described in exact terms but are diagnostic relative to their opposites.

“To one unaccustomed to observing wolves, the many differences would not be detectable or would sometimes appear negligible. To the skilled observer with an intimate knowledge of the biology and behavior of wolves such as many Nunamiut possess, these characteristics are real and useful. In using these criteria, the Nunamit always allow for the variability they know is inherent in wolf behavior and morphology and always consider the various parameters in combination, synthesizing them as observations of an individual wolf accrue. Determination of sex is usually tentative until the wolf is within a few hundred yards or has urinated in a characteristic manner.

“It is important to keep in mind that rarely is any single characteristic considered unequivocal evidence that the animal in question either a male or female. They are always integrated with the entire array of clues available and each characteristic carries its own predictive weight. Hunters differ somewhat in the weight they place on certain clues, probably because each relies, to a great extent, on his own experience in developing criteria of predictive value.”

A college-educated biologist born in Wisconsin, Stephenson admitted he never became as skilled as Anatuvuk hunters at identifying the sex and age of wolves by sight, but his 1973 paper outlined some of the visual clues he concluded the hunters were using to make judgments as to what they were seeing.

Impaired vision

The most famous experiment to illustrate how easily our eyes can be fooled by what we want or expect to see was videotaped for an experiment in what has come to be known as “inattentional blindness.”

“In our best-known demonstration, we showed people a video and asked them to count how many times three basketball players wearing white shirts passed a ball,” psychologist Daniel Simons wrote in Smithsonian Magazine in 2012. “After about 30 seconds, a woman in a gorilla suit sauntered into the scene, faced the camera, thumped her chest and walked away. Half the viewers missed her. In fact, some people looked right at the gorilla and did not see it.”

After the video become an internet hit, Simons made another – this time asking people to watch for the gorilla. When they did that, he wrote, “they overlooked other unexpected events, such as the curtain in the background changing color.

“How could they miss something right before their eyes? This form of invisibility depends not on the limits of the eye, but on the limits of the mind. We consciously see only a small subset of our visual world, and when our attention is focused on one thing, we fail to notice other, unexpected things around us—including those we might want to see.”

The latest work builds on the earlier illustrated weaknesses of our observational skills. Not only do human eyes sometimes fail to notice the unexpected, they are also biased to see what they are conditioned to expect.

“….Bias is common across urban-living participants in different countries, and not simply a response bias,” the Royal Society researchers wrote. “We propose that this man-made bias is the result of expectations about the world that favor the rapid interpretation of complex images as man-made. Given that the visual diet of our urban participants is rich in man-made objects, our results are consistent with” biases toward those objects.

So when you think seeing is believing, blink and take another look. You might have fallen subject to the bias in your eyes.
















10 replies »

  1. Try this one. Some people read the following and hear a clarion call while others read an idiotic infomercial from TV channel 34:


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  2. I love it when people say “let’s compromise on our disagreement”.
    What they really mean is “just agree with me and everything will be cool”.

  3. Human beings adapt survival strategies, including perception, to the environments in which they live. Take any creature out of its habitat and it will have adaptation struggles. I think Ted isn’t too far off though. A person living in a modern society, who has access to all the modern tools, but not in an intensely urban environment, has sufficient familiarity to get by in “the big city” while still having the opportunity to develop the skill set to do adequately in a more rural, “wilder,” environment.

  4. Thanks for referencing one of Alaska’s most observant biologist Bob Stephsonson. A good example of a non-Alaskan Native who could see much better in rural Alaskan than in the hustle & bustle of urban Fairbanks. Few people have spent as much time paying attention to Alaska’s wildlife and there relationship with Alaska Natives in northern Alaska than he did.

  5. While perceptual differences certainly do exist between individuals – and pretty dramatically! – it seems rather unlikely that people will divide into “city” vs “country” cohorts, in a scientifically meaningful/useful way.

    City people are more exposed to man-made stuff, only in a limited (“stunted”) sense. They see tons of buildings, roads and parking lots, repetitiously. Many country people have more tools & equipment that they use to engage with & manipulate their environment – in a wide range & diversity of ways – and are arguably more attuned to mechanical things & machines.

    Psychology is a known-suspect in the current phenomenon of irreproducible ‘science’. They’re a poster-child for scientists who don’t know how to created a science experiment that can be repeated by others (or that’s even internally consistent) … and I think these basic issues are on display, in the case of this perception-study.

    Problem #1: Good luck, defining what is meant by urban vs rural people. (Rookie boo-boo; if ya can’t define what yer talking about – Doh! – ya ‘don’t know’ what yer talking about.)

    #2, good luck, defining the perceptual effects at work, and how they vary within urban populations, within country populations, and between the two. (Wading in over yer head; science doesn’t know enough about Perception to go out on this limb – the contemporary Computer Analogy applies: “Garbage in, garbage out”)

    The way to fix some of these issues, science-wise, is start with rats. Raise some in captive environments where they see & do only natural things (kill & eat their own real food; contest/fight with each other for territory & mates, etc). Raise others in highly manufactured environments where they manipulate mechanisms & devices; food magically appears in a dish, natural conflicts are suppressed, etc). The main problem with this approach, is simply that rats don’t speak English. A secondary problem is the aforementioned difficulty that psychologists appear to have, “perceiving” what is science, and what isn’t.

    What is really going on here is probably “Politics”, camoflaged in science-clothing.

    • Steve,

      As long as they are being done well, longer comments are more-better for the website. They’re Content, and Google uses them as part of the formula for figuring out how to rank sites & pages in search-returns.

      If there is a message or an Agenda that a site owner wants to promote, like say veganism, PETA, and animal rights, then the owner wants the site to have as high a profile as it can, in order to get the message out.

      Liberals write liberal blogs, cause they want a liberal world. Conservatives are promoting conservative principles, online, hoping to recruit more people to their perspective.

      Lots of people with a website, hey, just want it not to be a pathetic bust (the fate of 99%). Paying attention to the SEO factors is a big part of it. Good comments with details and words that give the ranking-algorithm something to get hold of & work with, are what the site owner aiming to make it to first base, wants.

      A guy & site like Craig Medred is another couple rungs up the ladder, but not a lot of rungs. He’d like some decent income, but he wants to be better-recognized as a working, contributing, professional Journalist.

      Others have a yen to be an effective, consequential Activist. In both cases, the website has to get off the ground and into the air, and Comments that work well as Content, help.

      • Ted,
        I guess we should feel blessed you showed up with your Omnipresent world view that knows exactly what Craig wants on his site and also your ability to know exactly everyone else’s motives who comments.
        It looks like you are not the only one who is possessing Omnipresent powers these days…
        “Palin later said God doesn’t want families to split up.” 
        I would never claim to know exactly what God or Medred “wants” these days.

    • Steve,

      No strain on the ol’ omniscience to know Craig’s dedication to & concern for Journalism & media, since he spells it out in his posts regularly. His site makes a little bit of money, and while it probably doesn’t move his economic needle much, it’s hugely better than a site that makes nothing.

      Website management is up there with milking 40 cows, or keeping 70 dogs, and if you watch, you can see Craig making the rounds of the chores, talking with the Vet, and planning for his next upgrades.

      Now off to bed with me, and gone early staying young in the brush tomorrow.

  6. There is too much data so evolution apparently selects in favor of screens, which produces information. Those with better information have better odds.

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