People Likely to Form Extreme Perceptions of Reality While Learning, According to New Research at The University of Texas at Austin

Feb. 17, 2010

AUSTIN, Texas — People may develop distorted views of certain types of people, places or experiences depending on how they compare those categories during the learning process, according to new research at The University of Texas at Austin.

Tyler Davis, psychology graduate student, and Bradley Love, associate professor of psychology, found that when people assess categories on opposite ends of a spectrum (such as diet foods and non-diet foods) and contrast them along a particular basis of comparison (such as the amount of calories), they are more likely to form a polarized, unrealistic caricature of the category ("most diet foods have almost no calories, like celery").

"Our findings have implications for everyone because we all use categories to reason," Davis said. "This research shows us how potential distortions can creep into our conceptualizations of categories simply from how they are compared with others. They suggest that habitual ways of contrasting categories—common in the media, schools or across a culture—may affect what people think is typical or appropriate for a category."

In a series of experiments with 285 college students, the researchers examined what the participants considered to be a category's average ("celery and carrots are average diet foods"), and how those conclusions were shaped by how they contrasted the categories (such as non-diet foods and diet foods).

When respondents were asked to think about categories (such as wind and solar energy) that are somewhat equal in respect to a basis of comparison (pollution), most of them attributed realistic conceptions of the category ("both types of energy are low polluting").

However, when the respondents were asked to assess categories that are on opposite sides of the pollution spectrum (such as coal and wind), they were more likely to form unrealistic caricatures of the power plant categories. They viewed coal plants as creating more pollution than they actually do and wind plants as creating less pollution than they actually do.

According to the study, the respondents found it easier to reason with a category when contrasting it along extreme ends of a spectrum.

"Disturbingly our work suggests that such contrasts lead to unrealistic caricatures that people may find easier to process and more compelling than the true categories," Davis said.

The findings are detailed in a study titled "Memory for Category Information is Idealized through Contrast with Competing Options" in the December 2009 issue of Psychological Science.

For more information, contact: Jessica Sinn, College of Liberal Arts, 512-471-2404; Tyler Davis, psychology graduate student, 512-471-4253; Bradley Love, associate professor of psychology, 512-232-5732.