Motivation and Perception

Spend a few minutes looking at the image below. How would you describe what is happening?


My Social Psychology students suggest:

  1. “the wife is sad, because the husband just died.”
  2. “the wife is upset because her husband is drunk.”
  3. “maybe she just woke up, and he’s still sleeping.”

For what it’s worth, the first two suggestions came from women. The third from a man.

But there are other possible explanations. Maybe she’s not his wife. Maybe she’s his nurse, his sister, a prostitute, or a stranger. The setting could be a hospital, a hotel, or a home. The woman could be sad, angry, ashamed, or tired. Or maybe her neck is just sore. The man could be asleep or awake. Dead or alive. Caught in flagrante or innocently observed. The mind could tell a thousand stories about the same simple drawing.

The story we tell – the interpretation we provide – is shaped by our past experience, our beliefs and values, our cultural background, and our current goals and motives, just to name a few. Thus, the stories we tell may be more indicative of something about us, than of anything about the targets.

Of course, this is a drawing – there is no objective reality, no correct answer regarding its meaning. But we experience a conceptually similar process on a daily basis, watching people interact on public transportation, or at the store, or at work. Our mind is constantly making sense of experiences, filling in details that we don’t actually know to give us a feeling of understanding. That understanding may be right or wrong, but so long as it feels right to us, it becomes our subjective reality.

If there is anything systematic to the way we draw our inferences – the way we construct our subjective reality – it it represents bias. Bias takes on many forms and can influence us through many channels.

One motive which introduces bias into the way we perceive the world is the need to view ourselves positively. When that motive is threatened, such as when someone insults us, or when we fail at some task, our need for self-defense or self-justification grows. As a result, we become susceptible to many forms of bias aimed at self-protection.

Let’s consider another set of images. The following are of Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration (left), and Donald Trump’s in 2017 (right).


There are many reasons Donald Trump’s crowd may have been smaller than Barack Obama’s, however there is no alternative truth (truth being representative of objective reality) about the sizes of the crowds in these photos – Obama’s was bigger.

There is, however, alternative interpretation (interpretation being reflective of subjective experience – and therefore subject to bias). For someone  who not only has a strong desire to see himself as ‘great’ but who has an acknowledged desire to see himself as ‘the greatest,’ lower crowd turnout represents a threat to self-esteem and value. It implicates self-defensive bias. Under these conditions, Donald Trump may convince himself that there is something amiss in or with the photos.

Bear in mind that this was Trump’s view of that event:


Amazing right? It must have been overwhelming to look out across that crowd of thousands and be sworn in as President. To later see side-by-side images from a different perspective contradicts his experience (“it feels like a lot of people!”). As a result, he may look for evidence which confirms those feelings, and ignore evidence which contradicts it. Of course, he may accurately understand the differences in crowd sizes and his assertion that his inaugural crowd was the largest ever may be an attempt to impact the subjective perception of millions of viewers. This is a case, in trying to know his intentions, where objective reality is unclear.

When reality is tangible, it leaves evidence. Pictures of crowds, or reliably measured data about global temperatures reflect fact. The meaning of those facts can be debated, but if our perception contradicts or ignores the objective indicators (“the crowd in that image is clearly bigger!” “the global temperature is dropping!”), it must be biased.

When reality is intangible, (for example, when we’re trying to understand someone’s motives) objective reality is harder to define. In this case, it can be difficult – maybe impossible – to know if our perception matches ACTUAL reality. However the uncomfortable consideration we give to self-threatening information (information which makes us look bad, or which contradicts our preexisting views) shows that our motivation is at least partially tempered by a concern for accuracy. Refusal to do so leaks our underlying motive, and indicates our bias.

If our self-esteem motive is working well, we will be blind to its influence. That is, we will believe that our perception reflects reality, not bias. Because it influences us automatically, and outside of conscious awareness, bias is hard to taste or feel or smell. That’s what makes it so insidious, and that’s why we may get into arguments with people who view the world differently than we do – both sides believing that our perspective is the right one, and unable to understand how someone could possibly “see” it another way.

Although I can’t give you the tools to identify bias in yourself and others every time it occurs, the goal of this blog is to help you identify times and situations that it might influence you, to help you understand why it would do so, and to give you some tools to help counter its role in the way you interact with others. Feedback, questions, and suggestions welcome.

**Motivation and Perception in Action: If you would like to know how different motives may influence your interpretation of the world, take this test here: (you’ll need at least 10 minutes). Because it’s not administered under carefully controlled conditions, it won’t give you a perfect snapshot of your motives in life, or even your motives right now, but it might give you some things to think about.**

5 thoughts on “Motivation and Perception”

  1. This is a clear and straightforward explanation for the motivations surrounding increasingly perplexing behaviors. I wish we all shared the same perceived realities for these things that really matter (i.e., policy, social reform, etc), but I value the beauty of those differences in art and literature.


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