Motivation, perception and memory

We rely on our perception – our senses – to keep us aware of what’s going on around us. What we perceive through our senses is the raw data for our cognition, which is the sense we make of that raw data. Cognition is an individual thing. Two or more people may witness the same event and come away with different versions of what happened.

Memory isn’t like a tape recorder that accurately records all the events we witness or experience. It’s affected by many factors, one of which is your motivations (if any) regarding the event.  When I studied perceptual psychology in grad school, I learned the principle “motivation affects perception.” What you want – if only at that moment – affects what you see and hear. What we’re motivated to think or believe, for whatever reasons, unconsciously affects our perceptions. This determines what we subsequently think or believe about the event or situation, shaping our memory of it. For example, if a foul is called on your team at a sporting event, you’re more likely to perceive that it was a bad call than if you were rooting for the other team. If you witnessed a car crash in which friends were injured or killed, you’re more likely to perceive – and recall – that the driver of the other car was at fault. It’s human nature.

In grad school I audited a perceptual psychology course taught by a husband and wife team (Dr.s Fred and Anne Richards) who had co-authored with another psychologist an authoritative textbook on the subject. They were excellent teachers, but free expression by students was encouraged in the psychology department, and some of the students took exception to our professors’ habit of responding to questions about perceptual phenomena with “according to the book _____.” Fred and Anne didn’t seem to “get” the objection, and continued to refer to their book in response to questions.

So, one day before class a student I’ll call Steve asked if he could have the last fifteen minutes of the session, and Fred and Anne graciously agreed. At the appointed time, Steve led us outside, where a friend had been tending a hibachi grill filled with burning charcoal. Steve asked for silence until we returned to the classroom, and proceeded to burn a copy of the textbook before our startled  eyes. I recall a wide variety of reactions, from shocked looks and gasps, to laughter. We returned to the classroom and had the best discussion I remember in the whole course. What we learned was that no two of us who’d witnessed the book-burning had had the same experience! Some had responded viscerally (“I can’t believe I’m WATCHING A BOOK-BURNING!”), some had appreciated Steve’s statement in different ways, and others felt concerned about Fred and Anne’s feelings, as they conjectured about what those might be. I think it’s fair to say that our teachers were stunned, but they handled the event with grace, and we all learned something from it.

Motivation affects both our cognitions and our subsequent recall. Juries in criminal courts tend to be impressed by eye-witness testimony, but trial  lawyers know well how unreliable it can be. Whether one’s motivations come from underlying attitudes, beliefs, and personal values relevant to the issues at hand, or conscious bias, or personal relationships involved, they affect perception and all that follows. The emotions that may be attached to events and situations also affect our memories at an unconscious level. Jerzy Kosinski put it this way: “What we remember lacks the hard edge of fact. To help us along, we create little fictions, highly subtle and elaborate scenarios which clarify and shape our experience. The remembered event becomes a fiction, a structure made to accommodate certain feelings.”

In prior posts I’ve written about cognitive and cognitive behavioral therapy, and will be writing more as I continue to review theories and therapies. Our cognitions aggregate into beliefs, whether or not those  cognitions were logical or rational. These therapies help people to become more aware of their thoughts and beliefs, and to distinguish between those that are rational and those that aren’t. To understand human behavior, it’s important to grasp that what we see and hear is affected by what we want. I submit that a baker, a painter, and a starving man, seeing the same loaf of bread, see different things. What we bring to a situation partly determines what we take from it.

James Taylor wrote: “Painters use their eyes to show us what they see/ But when that canvas dries, we all see it differently.”

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