PSYCHOLOGY: State of Reference

Science  05 Oct 2007:
Vol. 318, Issue 5847, pp. 19a
DOI: 10.1126/science.318.5847.19a

Students in elementary physics classes are introduced to the concept of frame of reference—the spatial coordinate system used by an observer to describe events—for instance, in the context of the perceived motion of trees by a passenger in a moving automobile. Adding in the dimension of time leads into non-intuitive territory, as in the example of a traveling astronaut who returns to Earth younger than her stay-at-home twin.

Building on previous work that demonstrated that internal physiological states can influence one's perception of physical quantities (such as thirsty people being more likely to characterize objects as transparent; that is, resembling water), Balcetis and Dunning show that internal psychological states are also capable of altering our perception of the external world. They induced states of high or low cognitive dissonance (a mismatch between thought and action) by asking or telling two groups of students to walk across campus wearing various fruit- and vegetable-themed adornments. In order to render a freely chosen yet somewhat embarrassing task less unpleasant to fulfill, the first set of students mentally shortened the distance they had to cover by estimating it to be fully 40% less than the average estimate made by the second group. Intriguingly, the route to ameliorating the state of dissonance appeared to be purely perceptual, as the free-choice students did not shorten their time of exposure by walking faster; in fact, they took about 10% longer. — GJC

Psychol. Sci. 18, 917 (2007).

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