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Having high status literally changes one’s perception of reality

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In the seminal 2000s movie “The Matrix”, after Keanu Reeves’s character Neo is taken out from the computer simulation that he unknowingly was trapped in, Neo has trouble comprehending that all his life he failed to notice the artificial nature of his reality. Real is real. Fake is fake. The status of reality is axiomatic. So why is it that even when Morpheus, played by Laurence Fishbourne, is explicitly telling him that the chair in front of him is really a byproduct of a computer program, he cannot discern the difference? It is at this point in the movie in order to soothe Neo’s chaotic mind Morpheus makes the following claim:

What is real? How do you define ‘real’? If you are talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.

Simple and to the point. What we call “real” in our day to day lives is really our perception of reality. This perception of reality is contingent on the kind of sense organs we have. If we had sense organs of a mosquito, for example, then our reality would be different from what we currently call reality as humans. How reality is like independent of our perception, no one knows.

And when I say no one knows, it truly is the case that no one knows. This serious epistemological question of nature of reality that was raised by Matrix has been pondered by Philosophers all over the world for thousands of years and no one as of yet has been able to successfully tackle it. The “best” answer provided so far has been that although we don’t know what reality is like independent of our sense perceptions, we all can take solace in the fact that as humans we all reside in the same perceptual reality. A chair for human 1 is a chair for human 2, 3, 4, … n. Still, the qualification of “best” is worth keeping in mind as this answer doesn’t work for people suffering from schizophrenia who hear noises that aren’t there, people suffering from bipolar disorder who see stuff that doesn’t exist, people suffering from clinical depression who see the world more gloomy than it really is (?) and so on.

As evident above, the idea of humans all existing in same perceptual reality is not applicable to people who deviate from the perceptual norm, aka the crazies. But then what is this “perceptual norm”, one might ask. It is here where late 20th and early 21st century psychological studies have done such a good job displaying that the “perceptual norm” is actually a continuum of behavior and a recent study by Pettit and Sivanathan (2012), researchers at New York University and London Business School, UK, goes as far as to show that people in a state of high status hear applause louder and perceive facial expressions in reactions to their performances as more favorable.

The experimental methodology that yielded Pettit and Sivanathan’s (2012) astounding results is fairly straightforward. For hearing experiment, 86 participants with mean age of 21 were randomly assigned to high-status, low-status, and control conditions. Each participant was asked to type 4 -5 sentences about a topic on a computer which then, they were told, would be projected onto a screen in a different room filled with audiences. These audience members would then judge the content of the written sentences by applauding or booing at various levels. The writing topic for participants in high/low status condition was to describe what happened and how they felt in a situation where they had a lot/no prestige, respected/not-respected, and admired/not-admired in front of others. The writing topic for participants in the control condition was to write about their activities on a typical day.

After submitting their written material each participant reported on a separate page how they felt on a scale of 1 to 7 their sense of self respect, prestige, and status. All participants also filled out measures of various emotions and a self-esteem scale. Finally, the participants were informed to wear headphones so that they could hear the audiences’ reaction to their written response for 5 seconds. All participants heard the same level of applause. After doing some filler items the participants were asked to once again wear headphones in order to hear ambient noise for 5 seconds from the same audience classroom. The study concluded with participants reporting the volume of applause and the ambient noise that they had heard.

Statistical analysis of the data collected in the hearing experiment showed that participants who were asked to write about a situation where they felt they had high status reported hearing the audience applause louder than those who had to write about feeling being of low status and those who described their day to day activities. There was no difference between the three groups when it came to hearing volume of ambient crowd noise. Furthermore, measures of positive affect, negative affect, and self-esteem did not predict participants in different conditions hearing different levels of applause.

The setup for the visual experiment was similar to the hearing one as 42 participants with mean age of 22 were randomly assigned to a high status and low status condition and were told to write their opinion of police presence on university campus in 4 – 5 sentences. The participants were also told that their written response would be automatically sent to certain number of audience members who are all sitting alone in front of a computer and whose picture will be taken by a webcam as soon as they are done reading the response written by the experiment participants.

After the participants were done writing their responses they were asked to guess on a scale of 1 to 7 the extent to which the audience members will respect and agree with their argument. The experimental manipulation was then triggered where all participants were asked to describe how they felt in a situation that had they had been in the past, just like in the beginning of hearing experiment, where they had high/low prestige and were admired/not-admired in front of others.

The status manipulation was followed by a picture of all audience responses in the form of 36 faces randomly arranged on a 6x6 grid. The 36 faces were actually only 6 unique faces with 3 faces smiling and 3 frowning. The collective faces image was shown to participants only for one second wherein, after seeing the image, the participants were asked to estimate the total number of people in the audience, the percentage of audience wearing a yellow shirt, and the percentage of audience that was smiling in response to their writing. After completing this questionnaire the participants completed a demographic survey and were debriefed on the nature of the experiment.

The experimental results here echoed the conclusions of the hearing experiment as participants in the high status condition estimated the number of audiences smiling at a statistically significant higher level than those in the low status condition. Furthermore, participants in the high status condition overestimated the percentage of the crowd smiling while participants in the low status condition accurately reported this percentage. This result holds true even in the face of the fact that both groups were similar in their expectations of how the audience would react to their written response.

The above presented findings must be shocking to anyone with the traditional perspective of perception being a fixed variable that interacts with reality in only one way; a perspective according to which any deviation from the norm is an error or a medical condition that necessitates fixing. However, from the standpoint of history of psychological research there are a plethora of studies demonstrating again and again how malleable the way we relate our environment is. It is the case, for instance, that a 10$ wine, when labeled 90$, is reported to taste better (Plassman et al., 2008). It is also the case that believing one has a high social status is more predictive of one’s psychological and physiological well-being than one’s actual social standing as measured by one’s education, yearly income, occupation, and other objective measures (Adler et al., 2000). Combining such results from different spheres of psychological research it is easier to formulate a study that strives to display how our sense of perception is contingent on the way we relate to the world, as it has been accomplished by Pettit and Sivanathan (2012).

References:

Adler, N.E., Epel, E.S., Castellazzo, G., & Ickovics, J.R. (2000). Relationship of subjective and objective social status with psychological and physiological functioning: Preliminary data in healthy white women. Health Psychology, 19, 586-592.

Pettit, N.C., & Sivanathan, N. (2012). The eyes and ears of status: how status colors perceptual judgment. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(5), 570-582.

Plassman, H., O’Doherty, J., Shiv, B., & Rangel, A. (2008). Marketing actions can modulate neural representations of experienced pleasantness. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 105, 1050-1054.

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