When our understanding of cause-and-effect is contradicted by what we actually see, sometimes our understanding overrules our perception.
Research published online in Psychological Science on June 26 found people’s causal expectations influenced their perception of the ordering of events in time.
“It appears that when people hold strong convictions about the relationships between objects or events, then inference takes precedence over perception,” Christos Bechlivanidis of the University College London, the lead author of the study, told PsyPost.
For their study, Bechlivanidis and Lagnado created a software-based game that contained various 2-D objects that could be activated by the user. The objects each behaved in predefined ways, which the user had to figure out through trial and error. They learned, for instance, that the collision of a green square caused a red rectangle to transform into a star.
Once the user learned how the various objects interacted, they watched one of two recorded video clips of the game. One clip violated the expected causal order of events, while the other did not. Those who watched the former clip tended to perceive events in the wrong temporal order.
“Despite having clearly witnessed the events happening at a very close distance to each other, our participants reported an order that matched not what they saw but what they thought it would be normal to see, i.e. they reported the presumed cause occurring before its associated effect,” Bechlivanidis said.
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