Most people assume there is reality out there and that the representation we have of it in our minds is a precise duplicate, a flawless perception of the facts. This is simply not true; the perceiver contributes to the mental representations such that, even in perception, there are dif ferences between people in what they see when they look at a scene. In this chapter , we will expand on this notion and cover two topics that explore individual dif ferences in perception. These topics show how perceptual differences can be stable, consistent, and meaningfully related to other areas of life.
Have you ever heard the phrase that someone "can' t see the forest for the trees"? This usually refers to the fact that someone cannot look beyond the details to get the big picture about a situation, that he or she cannot disengage his or her perception from the particular details to get a grasp of the general gist of the situation. Psychologist Herman Witkin studied such dif ferences in perceptual style for almost 30 years. He came to call this topic field dependence versus field independenc Witkin's first book was title Personality Through Perception (Witkin et al., 1954), and this title captures the idea that personality can be revealed through differences in how people perceive their environment.
Witkin was first interested in the cues that people use in judging orientation i space. If you see an object that is tilted, how do you know it is the object, and not your body, that is tilted? To make such judgments, some people rely on cues from the environment surrounding the object (are other things tilted as well?), whereas other people rely more on bodily cues that tell them that they are upright and therefore it must be the object that is tilted. To investigate this individual difference, Witkin devised an apparatus called the Rod and Frame Test (RFT). Using this apparatus, the participant sits in a darkened room and is instructed to watch a glowing rod surrounded by a square frame, which is also glowing. The experimenter can adjust the tilt of the rod, the frame, and the participant' s chair. The participant's task is to adjust the rod by turning a dial, so that the rod is perfectly upright. To do this accurately , the participant has to ignore cues in the visual field in which the rod appears (i.e., the square frame surrounding th rod, which the experimenter tilts). If the participant adjusts the rod so that it is leaning in the direction of the tilted frame, then that person is said to be dependent on the visual field, or field-dependent Other people disregard the external cues and, instead, use information from their bodies in adjusting the rod to upright. Such participants are said to be independent of the field, or field-independent they appear to rely on their own sensations, not the perception of the field, to make the judgment
The Rod and Frame Test is a difficult and time-consuming way to measure fie dependence-independence, so Witkin sought new ways to measure this perceptual difference (Witkin et al., 1962). One clever way of measuring field dependence independence is to create a complex figure that contains many simple figures shapes. You may have seen children' s puzzles that consist of a lar ge drawing with several smaller, hidden figures within it. The goal of such puzzles is to find as man of the hidden figures within the la ger drawing as possible. An example of a hidden figures test is given in Figure 12.2. Witkin devised a similar test, called the Embedded Figures Test (EFT), which can be used to measure field dependence without relyin on the cumbersome Rod and Frame Test. Some people, when given the EFT , have trouble locating the simple figures embedded within the more complex surroundin figure, apparently being bound up in the "forest and unable to see the "trees." These people are said to be field-dependent. Other people quickly spot many or all of th embedded figures and, so, are able to see objects independently from the background Such people are said to be field-independent. Performance on the EF correlates strongly with performance on the RFT (Witkin, 1973). Moreover, scores on measures of field independence-dependence are stable over time. Witkin and others have extended research on field dependence-independence by investigating its conse quences for various domains of life, such as education and social relations.
Are differences in perception related to other dif ferences in personality functioning? Just before his death in 1979, Witkin wrote several papers summarizing his research in two broad domains in which field dependence-independence appears to have con sequences: education and interpersonal relations. In one lar ge study, 1,548 students were followed from their entry into college until several years after graduation. Choice of major in college was found to be related to field independence-dependence: th field-independent students tended to favor the natural sciences, math, and engineer ing, whereas the more field-dependent students tended to favor the social sciences an education (Witkin, 1977; Witkin et al., 1977).
A second major area of research reviewed by Witkin and Goodenough (1977) concerns the interpersonal correlates of field independence-dependence. Field-dependen people, as might be predicted, tend to rely on social information and frequently ask other people for their opinions. They are attentive to social cues and, in general, are oriented toward other people. They show a strong interest in others, prefer to be physically close to other people, gravitate to social situations, and get along well with others. Field-independent people, on the other hand, function with more autonomy and display a more impersonal or detached orientation toward others. They are not very interested in others' opinions, keep their distance from others, and show a preference for nonsocial situations.
After Witkin's death, little research was done on field independence-dependence fo about a decade. However , starting in the 1990s, new research began to appear in the
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An Embedded Figures Test, in which the objective is to find as many of the smaller figures hidden the larger figure as possible
An Embedded Figures Test, in which the objective is to find as many of the smaller figures hidden the larger figure as possible literature (Messick, 1994). One new area of research concerns how people react to situations that are rich in sensory stimulation and whether field-independent people ca focus on a task and screen out distracting information from the field. For example, on study of 100 police of ficers examined their ability to disregard noise and distraction in simulated, though naturalistic, shooting situations. Similarities can be drawn between this study and the Diallo case presented at the beginning of this chapter . That night in the Bronx, the officers were trying to focus on M . Diallo. However, the light was dim, other people were around, the four officers needed to be aware of each other and awar of the commands being given, and so on. In short, they were in a stimulus-rich environment. Field-independent persons are predicted to be better at ignoring distracting information and focusing on the important details of the event. The researchers conducting the study of 100 police of ficers in simulated high-stimulation settings ( rij, van der Steen, & Koppelaar , 1995) made exactly this prediction—that the more field independent officers would perform better by noticing details more accuratel , would be less distracted by the noise and activity , and would be more accurate in deciding when to shoot. Results showed that the field-independent o ficers performed better o the shooting task under these high-stimulation conditions and were able to give a better description of the witnessed event, compared with the field-dependent o ficers Presumably, the field-independent o ficers could better focus on the ta get without being distracted by the noise and activity going on in the field around them. In anothe study, when presented with complex photographs of people, field-independent person were better at noticing and decoding the facial expressions in the photographs, compared with field-dependent persons (Bastone & Wood, 1997).
Another area of high stimulation is in hypermedia- and multimedia-based computer instruction, such as educational materials on the World Wide Web, which come with sound and streaming video. With the growing popularity of the World Wide Web in education, and the capacity of desktop computers to run multimedia applications, hypermedia-based instruction is taking root in mainstream elementary and secondary schools. This form of instruction involves the presentation of information in multiple media formats (text on a computer screen, graphics, moving video, sound), while students navigate through this maze of sensory and cognitive information at their own pace.
In a study of eighth-graders, the researchers found that the field-independent students learned mor effectively than the field-dependent subjects in hypermedia-based instructional environment. Presumably, the field- independent students more easily foun the thread that ran through the various media presentations of information. The experimenters concluded that field-independent students are able to get th points embedded within the various sources of media faster and are able to switch between educational media or sensory fields faste , compared with field dependent students (Weller et al., 1995). Many studies of this perceptual style suggest that it leads to dif fer-ent styles of learning—for example, field-independen persons are good at selective attention in stimulus-rich environments (at processing specific information whil blocking out what is not important), whereas field dependent persons tend to process information in chunks
and are good at seeing connections between categories of information (Oughton & Reed, 1999; Richardson & Turner, 2000).
Some interesting research has also been done on the relation between field dependence and the ability to "read or decode emotional facial expressions. On the one hand, because field-dependen people tend to be more socially oriented, we might think they should do especially well in reading emotional expressions. On the other hand, if we think of facial expressions as complex arrays of information, then maybe the field-independent persons would be better at analyzing an interpreting such patterns. In a study on this topic, psychologists Linda Bastone and Heather Wood (1997) had subjects indicate the emotion expressed in 72 dif ferent faces. However, to make the task dif ficult some emotion displays showed only the eyes, and some showed only the mouth. The field-independent subjects were significantly better interpreting facial expressions than the field-dependent subjects, bu only when the tasks were dif ficult. This finding reinforces the notio that field-independent persons are good at tasks that require findi and interpreting patterns and making generalizations.
Another area that requires skill at seeing patterns, or ganizing information, and making generalizations is the learning of a second language. Psychologists interested in second language acquisition have examined the role of personality , and several studies have identified field-independe persons as making better progress than field-dependent persons when learning a secon language. One study looked at American college students learning a foreign language (Hansen & Stansfield, 1982) and another looked at college students from foreign coun tries enrolled in English as a Second Language courses at American universities (Jamieson, 1992). Both studies concluded that field-independent persons have an easie time acquiring a second language, most likely because they are better able to perceive patterns within a complex stream of information, e.g., a foreign language.
Is it better to be field-independent or field-dependent? Like most personali dimensions, there are pros and cons associated with both tendencies (and remember , we are describing points along a continuum, not two categories of people). Field-independent people are skillful at analyzing complex situations and extracting information from the clutter of background distractions. However , they are somewhat low on social skills and prefer to keep their distance from others. Field-dependent people, on the other hand, have strong social skills, gravitate toward others, and are more attentive to the context than are field-independent persons. It appears that each o these contrasting perceptual styles is adaptive in particular situations, making it impossible to state which orientation is more valuable (Collins, 1994).
The way in which people perceive their surroundings and navigate through information— whether they tend to focus on the whole or tend to notice the particulars—is a perceptual style. What about other individual dif ferences in perception? One commonly noticed difference between people is in pain tolerance, in which people undergo the same physical stimulus (e.g., having to get an injection from the doctor) but react quite dif ferently from each other in terms of the pain they report experiencing. You probably know people who cannot tolerate the slightest pain, who complain about minor discomforts, and who are distressed by even the thought of having an injection. Perhaps you know other
people who can easily tolerate pain, who don' t notice, or at least don' t complain about, little discomforts, and who don' t even wince when given an injection. This dif ference between people in their pain tolerance attracted the interest of psychologist Aneseth Petrie, whose book Individuality in Pain and Suffering describes her research on and theory of individual dif ferences in tolerance for sensory stimulation (Petrie, 1967).
Petrie studied people in hospitals under going painful operations, as well as normal subjects in whom she induced pain—through applying heat or by piling weights on the middle joint of her subjects' fingers. In these studies, she was able to quantify how wel each subject could tolerate pain. She developed a theory that people with low pain tolerance had a nervous system that amplified, or augmented, the subjective impact of sen sory cues. In contrast, people who could tolerate pain well were thought to have a nervous system that dampened, or reduced, the ef fects of sensory stimulation. For these reasons, her theory came to be called the reducer-augmenter theory. This term refers to the dimension along which people differ in their reaction to sensory stimulation; some appear to reduce sensory stimulation, whereas some appear to augment stimulation.
Petrie developed an ingenious method for measuring a person' s tendency to either augment or reduce the impact of sensory stimulation. In this task, subjects are blindfolded and presented with dif ferent-sized wooden blocks. One block is a long wedge, and the subject can slide the fingers of one hand up and down the wedge Using the other hand, the participant is presented with wooden rectangular blocks of different size. The participant is asked to feel the width of the rectangular block with the other hand and slide his or her other hand up the wooden wedge until he or she judges that the width of the wedge is equal to the width of the wooden block in the other hand. Participants who consistently overestimate the size of the rectangular blocks are termed "augmenters" because they perceive the blocks to be lar ger than they really are. Participants who underestimate the size of the test blocks are called "reducers" because they perceive the test blocks to be subjectively smaller than they really are. This task is called the kinesthetic figural afte effect, or KFA (Herzog, Williams, & Weintraub, 1985; Petrie, 1967).
The KFA measure has high face validity , since it clearly measures how a person subjectively estimates the magnitude of sensory stimulation. However , it also has construct validity as a measure of pain tolerance. In a number of studies, Petrie found that the KF A augmenters were much less tolerant of pain than the KF A reducers. Indeed, it seems logical that people who reduce the ef fect of sensory stimulation are able to tolerate more pain than those who amplify sensory stimulation. For instance, Petrie (1967) found that women who were reducers on the KF A task reported relatively less pain during childbirth than did women who were KF A augmenters. Other researchers have replicated and extended these results.
Petrie believed that individual dif ferences in pain tolerance originated in the nervous system. A few studies have examined nervous system reactivity directly in relation to augmenting-reducing. For example, researchers reported that reducers show relatively small brain responses to flashes of lights (Spilker & Callawa , 1969) as well as smaller brain responses to bursts of noise (Schwerdtfeger & Baltissen, 1999), in comparison with augmenters. In this last study , conducted in Germany, reducers also reported that the noise was less loud, compared with augmenters, though the noise was, in fact, identical for all the participants.
The brain evoked response increases with increasing stimulus intensity , but the rate of change dif fers for dif ferent individuals, with augmenters showing a steeper rate of change with increasing stimulus intensity (Schwerdtfeger & Baltissen, 2002). Moreover, the brain evoked potential augmenting-reducing measure shows high test-retest reliability, similar to other personality traits (Beauducel, Debener , Brocke, & Kayser, 2000). Individual dif ferences in brain augmenting-reducing have also been studied in other animals, including cats and rats (Siegel, 1997). In fact, rats that have been bred to be sensation seeking or sensation avoiding have been shown to display brain evoked responses that indicate reducing and augmenting, respectively (Siegel & Driscoll, 1996).
Reducers should be motivated to seek strong stimulation in order to compensate for their lower sensory reactivity, related to optimal level of arousal, discussed in Chapter 6. Supporting this prediction, reducers have been found to drink more cof fee, smoke more, and have a lower threshold for boredom, compared with augmenters (Clapper , 1990, 1992; Larsen & Zarate, 1991). Other studies have shown that reducers tend to start smoking at an earlier age and to engage in more minor delinquencies as adolescents, compared with augmenters (Herzog, Williams, & Weintraub, 1985). One study found that smokers were more reducing than augmenting (Patton, Barnes, & Murray , 1993), and another study found that scores of a group of alcohol-abusing persons on a measure of reducing-augmenting were more in the reducing direction (Milin, Loh, & Wilson, 1992). Findings such as these are consistent with the notion that reducers may use substances to artificially obtain a lift in their arousal level
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