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Our Prior Expectations Drive Automatic, Routine Misperception of other People‘s Actions

Posted August 8, 2018

Published today (8 August 2018) in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, a new study demonstrates that we humans quite literally see the actions of others based on our prior expectations of what they should be doing, rather than on what they actually do.

The authors claim this could explain our tendency to routinely misperceive each other’s actions and see ambiguous behaviour as meaningful.

In the study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, 85 participants were asked to observe an actor reach for an object with a straight or arched trajectory on a touch screen.

Condition one had them reach for the object without any obstruction, while condition two presented the actor with an obstacle between the object and the hand.

In the experiment, the action disappeared mid-trajectory and participants had to touch the screen, indicating the position of the hand before it vanished.

A visual depiction of the experimental conditions. Image courtesy of the University of Plymouth.

Results showed that people’s judgements regarding the hand’s actual trajectory were heavily influenced by their expectations: in both conditions the hand was perceived to move in a more optimal trajectory than it actually did.

That is to say, the way people saw the movements of the hand were based on what they had expected the hand to do in order to maximise efficiency.

Even though the study pertains only to physical actions, it could also help us explain how people assess each other’s state of mind in a broader sense.

First, the study provides evidence that people make unconscious predictions as to what others are doing or seeing, so as to better calibrate their own actions.

A visual representation of the actual vs. perceived trajectory of the hand. Image courtesy of the University of Plymouth.

“So imagine you are a passenger in a car, and see a cat run out onto the street. If the driver has seen it, you can picture in your mind that they should now slow down and swerve to avoid it. If they don’t do this, you immediately know that they probably haven’t seen the cat and you can warn them,“ said study author Matthew Hudson.

Furthermore, the results show that “people ‘see’ others’ actions in the light of their own expectations. If you see someone look at something with a neutral expression and think they are angry, they might look a bit angrier than they really are. This might explain why people often get others’ actions so wrong and see ambiguous behaviour as meaningful”.


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