The power of wishful thinking: It influences what people see

What people desire, hope, fear or wishfully think can influence how they perceive visually ambiguous stimuli, according to a new study by Cornell psychologist David Dunning and graduate student Emily Balcetis.

In five studies, when Dunning and Balcetis showed ambiguous figures -- for example, one that could be interpreted as the letter "B" or the number 13 -- volunteers tended to see the figure the way they wanted to see it, because they were told that interpretation would have more favorable outcomes for them. One of the studies tracked eye movements, which affirmed that participants saw only the interpretation they typically wanted to see, rather than seeing both and only reporting their favored one.

"These studies support the growing body of evidence that people's motivational states -- their wishes and preferences -- influence their processing of visual stimuli," said Dunning.

The study will be published later in the year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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