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.
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.
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.