July 2013
Volume 13, Issue 9
Vision Sciences Society Annual Meeting Abstract  |   July 2013
'Top-down' effects where none should be found: The El Greco fallacy in perception research
Author Affiliations
  • Chaz Firestone
    Department of Psychology, Yale University
  • Brian Scholl
    Department of Psychology, Yale University
Journal of Vision July 2013, Vol.13, 780. doi:https://doi.org/10.1167/13.9.780
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      Chaz Firestone, Brian Scholl; 'Top-down' effects where none should be found: The El Greco fallacy in perception research. Journal of Vision 2013;13(9):780. https://doi.org/10.1167/13.9.780.

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      © ARVO (1962-2015); The Authors (2016-present)

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A tidal wave of recent research purports to have discovered that higher-level states such as moods, action-capabilities, and categorical knowledge can literally and directly affect what we see. Are these truly effects on perception, or might some instead reflect influences on judgment, memory, or response bias? Here, we exploit an infamous art-historical reasoning error (the so-called "El Greco fallacy") to demonstrate in five experiments that multiple alleged top-down effects (ranging from effects of morality on lightness perception to effects of action capabilities on spatial perception) cannot truly be effects on perception. We do so by actively replicating these very effects, but in previously untested circumstances where their motivating theories demand their absence. We first replicated a finding that holding a wide rod across one's body decreases width estimates of a potentially passable aperture, as measured by subjects' adjustments of a tape. However, we also observed the same narrowing effect when the 'matching' instrument was itself an aperture (instead of a tape). If rod-holding truly makes apertures look narrower, then this second experiment should have 'failed', because both apertures should have looked narrower, with the distortions cancelling out. A second series of experiments replicated a finding that recalling unethical deeds makes stimuli look darker, as measured by ratings on a 7-point number scale. However, we also observed the same darkening effect when the scale itself consisted of 7 grayscale patches (which should themselves have looked darker, too!). In each of these cases, the alleged effect is real but cannot be perceptual — since if it were, then the instrument used to measure it would have been similarly distorted, and the distortions would have cancelled out. We suggest that this new research strategy is widely applicable, and has broad implications for debates over the (dis)continuity of perception and cognition.

Meeting abstract presented at VSS 2013


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