Wishful thinking, wishful seeing: The effects of arousal on motivated perception

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Desires and wants can bias perception, making people see what they want to see. However, little is known about the psychological mechanisms that give rise to this bias. In this study, we investigated if motivational influences on visual perception are associated with changes in levels of physiological arousal. Specifically, we predicted that arousal mediates the effects of motivation (i.e. wanting to see) on perception (i.e. seeing). Participants were presented with ambiguous composite images created by morphing a face image and a scene image together, and were rewarded for correctly categorizing whether the face or scene image was of higher intensity. We motivated them to want to see one category over another by telling them they would win a bonus if the image was of a particular category. Pupil dilation was used as a proxy measure of arousal. Replicating previous findings, individuals were more likely to make motivationally consistent choices in perceptually ambiguous scenarios. Results from the pupil responses to the task suggest that an increase in individual bias is associated with stronger pupil response in some motivated contexts. In Experiment 1, subjects with higher levels of bias displayed stronger arousal responses in all motivated contexts. In Experiment 2, subjects with higher levels of bias displayed stronger arousal responses only during motivationally consistent trials. In both studies, we found that subjects with higher levels of motivational bias tended to have larger differences in pupil response between motivationally consistent and unmotivated contexts. Overall, our results demonstrate that arousal, as measured by pupil response, was positively associated with motivated perception, and contributes to our understanding of the physiological factors affecting biased perceptual judgments.


Type of resource text
Date created May 2019


Author Dziembaj, Roma
Degree granting institution Stanford University, Symbolic Systems Program
Primary advisor Zaki, Jamil
Advisor Knutson, Brian
Advisor Leong, Yuan Chang


Subject department of psychology
Subject social neuroscience lab
Subject affective neuroscience
Subject motivated perception
Subject arousal
Subject perceptual bias
Subject visual perception
Genre Thesis

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial 3.0 Unported license (CC BY-NC).

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Dziembaj, Roma. (06/2019). Wishful thinking, wishful seeing: The effects of arousal on motivated perception. Stanford Digital Repository. Available at: https://purl.stanford.edu/xc347db4401


Undergraduate Honors Theses, Symbolic Systems Program, Stanford University

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