Friday, February 14, 2014

The art and science of causal illusions

Hadar Naftalovich studies how causal illusions form. The aim is to prevent these illusions from getting out of hand, "as can sometimes occur in people with paranoia, obsessive-compulsive disorder or depression," she says. Photo by Kay Hinton.

Emory senior Hadar Naftalovich is majoring in psychology and minoring in visual arts. She has combined both to conduct experiments in causal illusions for the Mind and Language Lab of Emory psychologist Phillip Wolf.  Naftalovich wrote about her research in the current issue of Emory Magazine:

Imagine that your friend asks you if you got the job you recently interviewed for. You respond that you hope so, and quickly knock on wood to prevent any bad luck that could arise from that statement. Do you truly believe that knocking on wood prevented the bad luck?

Causal illusions are situations in which a causal relationship is inferred when there is no possible mechanism to validate that relationship. In order to study the formation and characteristics of causal illusions, we needed to provide participants with situations analogous to real-life scenarios and measure their false cause-effect beliefs.

We created two sets of animations, one focusing on a tray filled with water and the other focusing on a watch on a chain. With these animations, we manipulated contact, direction, and motion to create situations where a causal relationship was clearly present (such as a hand hitting a tray with water and a ripple occurring on the same side that the hand made contact on) and ones where the causal relationship was false (such as the hand failing to hit the tray and a ripple still emerging, but from the opposite side from which the hand moved).

We predicted that causal illusions are formed when people infer forces, even when the forces are illegitimate. If our hypothesis is correct, the ratings of causation would be strongest when contact, movement, and direction matched and weakest with no movement. Also, if there were sufficient evidence for a causal connection (such as movement) but no mechanism to validate that connection (no contact) there will be a stronger rating of causation when direction matched. Our results supported our hypothesis for both sets of animations.

Through my research I hope to better understand the processes that allow causal illusions to form and find ways to apply that knowledge to preventing these illusions from getting out of hand, as can sometimes occur in people with paranoia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or depression. My favorite part about doing this research is that I am able to use my art skills to advance my knowledge of psychology and use my pursuit of knowledge in psychology to advance my art skills.

You can read about more research projects of Emory undergraduates in Emory Magazine.

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