Goals Can Influence Perceptions of Size

Our brains are swell. Over the years they’ve picked up a few tricks, one of which is altering how we perceive the size of objects when it suits a need. Research shows that when we think something is instrumental or valuable, we perceive it to be bigger. And apparently our size-altering superheropowers are even more flexible than that. According to a new study we can perceive objects as larger or smaller depending on which size better aligns with our goals. And yes, the study involves men staring at breasts:

An abundance of research has investigated the effects of motivational states on size estimates, with initially a strong focus on the functionality of size overestimations. We suggest and found, however, that goal-relevant objects can be over- and underestimated, depending on which size is goal congruent. Specifically, we found that people with a throwing goal estimated (verbally and via visual matching) the size of a basketball as smaller than people without a throwing goal; hoop size estimates showed the reverse effect (Experiments 1 and 2). In Experiment 3, sex-primed men estimated a woman’s breasts as larger than neutral-primed men; women showed the reverse effect. Finally, Experiment 4 replicated this finding for people in impulsive but not reflective cognitive states, suggesting that biased size estimation is a spontaneous process that promotes readiness for goal pursuit. We conclude that bigger is not always better; people size the world as it best suits them.

Why might women primed with a sex goal imagine other women’s breasts to be smaller? Because women also see breast size as a sign of sexual attractiveness. Therefore, imagining other women’s breasts to be smaller makes the “competition” look more feeble.

Two other thoughts:

–A lot has been written about how setting concrete goals and subgoals can spur motivation and focus, but the study hints at another benefit to having a goal. Simply having a goal gives these perceptual distortions a chance to marginally influence how you view something’s attainability or value.

–I also wonder whether distorted perceptions contribute to the downside of avoidance goals — goals where the intent is to avoid a negative outcome rather than achieve a positive outcome. If your goal is to actively achieve something there may be more opportunities for beneficial distortions than there are when you try and avoid something. It would be interesting to see similar study in which subjects are primed with approach or avoidance goals.

den Daas, C., Hafner, M., & de Wit, J. (2012). Sizing Opportunity: Biases in Estimates of Goal-Relevant Objects Depend on Goal Congruence Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550612456046

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