If a gorilla walked through the middle of a basketball game you were watching, would you notice it?

Most people would reply with an instant yes to this question, but science actually shows that the answer depends way more on context and character than you might imagine. If you've been instructed to follow the game carefully, studies show there's a shockingly high chance you'll miss the giant hairy intruder entirely. But if you're a highly creative person you stand a better chance of spotting him.

The lesson here isn't that many sporting events would be more fun if they included unexpected intrusions by zoo animals or that scientists come up with some pretty weird experiments (though both, in my opinion, are true). The lesson is that vision isn't a simple mirror. Our eyes and brain don't just reflect the world to us. Instead, they construct the world based on our aims, attention, and attitude.

That's a pretty trippy idea to wrap your head around, but understanding this truth can also make you a better leader, a surprising new study suggests. Apparently we don't just misperceive apes depending on our frame of mind. We also misperceive our fellow humans.

You see what you feel.

The fascinating research led by University of California, San Francisco psychologist Erika Siegel and recently published in Psychological Science, tested how our mood affects our perception of faces. To figure this out, the team flashed images of either happy or sad faces before study subjects at a speed too quick to be perceived by the conscious mind, but fast enough to affect the subject's underlying mood.

Participants were then tested on how well they could read the emotions expressed on pictures of faces. The researchers showed that when we have been subtly exposed to smiling faces, we're more likely to perceive other faces as happy, whether they're genuinely cheerful or not. And when we're grumpy, we're more likely to see other people as grumpy too.

For the scientists involved this was further confirmation that vision isn't like a mirror. What we see is affected not only by what's "out there," but also by what's going on between our own ears.

"We do not passively detect information in the world and then react to it - we construct perceptions of the world as the architects of our own experience," they commented. "We see the world differently when we feel pleasant or unpleasant."

Leaders take note.

That's bound to be thought provoking for psychologists, but it's also of use to those of us with less academic interests too. The researchers suggest the findings might be of interest to judges, for instance, who would probably like to know that their mood literally warps their perception of the people appearing before them in court.

But it's also clearly useful to business leaders. Solid EQ rests on your ability to accurately perceive the feelings of others, and this study shows your emotions can easily get in the way of your ability to do that.

Thankfully, if you're aware of this tendency you can start to correct for it by asking yourself if your colleague's expression is really so dour, or it's just your foul mood that's making his neutral expression look so glum, or alternately, if you're missing the simmering annoyance of a co-worker thanks to your sunny mood.

Published on: Apr 30, 2018
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