A new study shows that we can smash through pre-existing beliefs and remember what we find interesting or enjoyable.
We all have some idea of what we like, and hopefully, we spend our time doing as much of those things as possible. The really lucky ones among us may also manage to make a career out of something we’re passionate about, but new research shows that we may have a distorted view of this subject. Pre-existing self-beliefs and cultural stereotypes, the authors report, can alter your memory of certain events and how interested you were in them. Essentially, this mechanism sometimes makes us forget where our passions lie because they don’t fit into our idea of what we ‘should be’.
However, we can overcome this dynamic.
Walk a mile in your shoes
“When we are developing our interests and looking back on our memories, I don’t think we realize how biased we can be by our pre-existing beliefs,” said study lead author Zachary Niese, who participated in the research as a doctoral student in psychology at Ohio State.
“People think they know themselves and know if they liked something or not, but often they can be misled by their own thoughts.”
Niese gives the example of a young girl who genuinely enjoyed participating in a science project at a summer camp while it was ongoing. However, upon her return home, she’s reminded that “science is not for girls“, and this comment can change the way she remembers her experience of the project. In effect, this dynamic replaces the feelings of enjoyment in her memories with the ‘proper’ ones of being bored by science.
In a series of four recently-published papers, Niese and her colleagues found consistent evidence that this dynamic is real; people can “forget” how much they enjoyed a particular activity because of what they believed going in, they explain.
Luckily for us, they’ve also found an efficient tool to break the bias. It’s as simple as visualizing an activity from a first-person perspective. For the girl in the example above, simply visualizing herself being at camp and picturing exactly what she did in the project will help put her back in touch with her feelings at the moment.
“We can use imagery as a tool to tap into our memories and more accurately identify what our actual experiences are instead of relying on our old beliefs,” said study co-author Lisa Libby, associate professor of psychology at Ohio State.
“People sometimes have experiences that are inconsistent with what they think about themselves. We may think we don’t like math, so if we enjoy a math class, that doesn’t fit in with our view of ourselves, so we dismiss that positive experience. That’s what using first-person visual imagery helps overcome.”
The team says this approach works because it changes the frame of mind with which we process that particular event. Viewing it from a first-person perspective forces us to think about and pay attention to how the event made us feel, Niese explains. In contrast, a third-person perspective is more abstract and forces us to imagine how we look from the outside — social norms and our pre-existing beliefs have much more sway here.
The team shows that imagery perspective is so powerful that we can change how people process events by merely showing them photographs taken from one visual perspective or the other, Niese adds.
In one of their experiments, the team worked with 253 undergraduate women, which they first surveyed about their interest in science. A few days later, the participants were asked to play a computer simulation game in which the objective was to create a balanced ecosystem.
Players could achieve this by tweaking how much grass, as well as the number of sheep and wolves that were present. Some of the women played an interesting version of the game (where they had complete control) while others played a ‘deliberately boring’ version (where they could run through predetermined settings rather than make any actual choices). Each of the students was asked to complete a task designed to influence their frame of mind in the moment. During this task, the researchers talked about the game as a science task (this was meant to prime participants) and then showed all the women a series of images and told them to pay attention to each one and try to form an impression of it in their mind.
The images showed an everyday action that differed only in whether the photo was taken from the first-person or third-person perspective. For example, the image could show a person cleaning a spill from a first-person or a third-person. Each participant saw all photos in either the first-person or third-person perspective. After this task, they were asked how interesting they found the ecosystem simulation game as a science task.
The team used the baseline value of their interest in science the women provided on the first day as a reference. All in all, the researchers report, those who viewed the third-person photos reported interest in the game that was very similar to how much interest they reported in science earlier. This was true both for those that played the boring or interesting version of the game. In other words, their pre-existing beliefs completely blinded them to how interesting the game actually was, Niese said.
The women who viewed the first-person photos didn’t show this bias. They accurately reported more interest in the game if they played the interesting version than if they played the boring version. The team says this shows that this group was able to accurately recall how interesting the game was, regardless of their individual interest in science. First-person imagery helped women see how interesting an activity actually was rather than be biased by their pre-existing beliefs, Niese said.
At the end of the study, the researchers offered participants three future “opportunities to do more things like the science task you completed today.” Those who played the interesting version of the simulation and who viewed the first-person photos were more likely than others to show greater interest in future science activities.
“Part of what is so interesting and surprising about our study is that a simple manipulation — just the way people think about a past event — is changing their conclusions about what they’re doing and whether they’re interested or not,” Niese said.
“It’s something people could do on their own if they wanted to and gain these benefits in situations where cultural stereotypes or pre-existing beliefs might be likely to bias their judgment or cloud their memories.”
The paper “I can see myself enjoying that: Using imagery perspective to circumvent bias in self-perceptions of interest” has been published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.