It turns out that my wife, known to me as She Who Must Give Instructions — Twice, was right again. Being told what to look for can actually make it more likely that you’ll find it.
In a research study published today, scientists reveal that spoken language can alter your perception of the visible world.
The study in PLoS Onereveals that people given a series of visual tests had dramatically different scores when they were prompted first with a verbal cue. Asked to find a specific letter in a crowded picture, people were much more likely to find that letter when they were given the auditory cue “letter B” beforehand. Interestingly, being shown an image of the letter B before looking at the picture did not help them pick out the letter B any better than a control group could.
I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, we’ve all done word searches in elementary and middle school when the teachers were looking for a little time killer and didn’t want to have to do too much work. With every word search, there’s a word bank to show you the words for which you’re searching. I always found that I did better when I read the words out loud to myself, rather than just reading the words.
The interesting thing to me, though, is I always find words that aren’t in the word bank. A question of looking too hard or just not focusing on the task at hand? I always came down on the side of working too hard, but my teachers kept harping on focus. Po-tay-to, po-tah-to.
Interestingly, although auditory verbal cues increased detection sensitivity, visual cues did not. This finding makes some sense when one considers that linguistic cues involve a non-overlapping format of sensory information that is globally statistically independent of the visual format of information in the detection task itself. By contrast, visual cues involve the same format of information as the detection task, and therefore do not provide converging sensory evidence from independent sources when the to-be-detected stimulus is presented.
Which means that there needs to be a combination of verbal and visual stimuli for this to work, to let you target what you’re looking for.
This has some pretty significant implications for parenting, dudes.
I mean, I know I’ve left notes for the little dudes before and returned to find absolutely nothing accomplished because they couldn’t find what I’d written about. After reading about this, I realized that the little dudes did do better when I gave them the note and also went over it with them.
Something to think about the next time Zippy the Monkey Boy tells me he can’t find that missing shoe when it’s sitting on the floor in the middle of the room.