The processing of the world is conducted through many levels. In humans, the first level of information processing is done through the senses. The ‘raw information’ is then processed and forms our mental image of the world. Cognitive biases are known to commonly occur (see risk assessment, decision making, predicting the future, taxi-cab problem for a few cognitive biases).

An analogy is the camera. Sensory information from the world goes through the lens and then the camera processes the information into the format that it is programmed to think of the world (further refinement is done with image manipulation programs).

Perception or sensory information has often thought to be raw information (like the camera lens). However, new research has shown that even our sensory information is being processed and being biased.

Denny Proffitt and colleagues from the University of Virginia have been studying how sensory information is processed and biased. Specifically, they have found that perception is biased by emotional and fatigue factors. Here is an excerpt from the APS Observer:

“A series of studies conducted in Proffitt’s laboratory have shown that the amount of effort required to walk to a destination or throw an object to a specific target affects how far away the destination or target is perceived to be. Apparent distance decreases with fitness and increases with fatigue. A destination will also appear farther away after a person walks on a treadmill (due to the temporary illusion, produced by treadmill walking, that it takes effort just to stay in the same spot). Similarly, a person throwing a heavy object will perceive the target to be farther away than a person throwing a light object.

This finding also extends to the perceived slant of a hill: A person wearing a heavy backpack will view a hill as steeper than will someone who is unencumbered.”

Of interest to fear and anxiety research is a study done in the Proffitt lab by Jeanine Stefanucci (now at The College of William and Mary). In this study, people estimated steepness of a staircase while standing on either a skateboard or a box (same height as skateboard) at the top of that staircase. People rated the steepness of the staircase much higher if they were standing on the skateboard (perception of height measured by multiple methods). The results indicate that people overestimate the height if they are standing on a skateboard. Thus, fear seems to be changing perception.