In 1974, 92 people participated in what seemed to be a rather boring experiment. The study consisted of watching two people, let’s call them Jim and Carol, converse for a few minutes while seated at a table.1 While the conversation these observers witnessed was the same, they came to very different conclusions about what they saw.
Some said Carol dominated the conversation. Others said it was Jim. And still, others said it was a balanced conversation with neither person dominating. Each group was unwavering in their opinion of what they saw.
So how could 92 people watching the same conversation judge it so differently?
Was it an issue of gender? No, the observer groups were equally mixed, yet still drew opposing views.
The difference came from not what they heard, but how they saw the interaction.
The people who thought Carol dominated the conversation, watched the conversation directly facing Carol from over Jim’s shoulder. The people who said Jim dominated were facing Jim from over Carol’s shoulder.
Those who viewed it from the side profile, neither directly facing Jim nor Carol, perceived an even conversation.
So why did this happen?
This is known as “illusory causation” or the “top-of-the-head phenomenon.”
We give greater causal weight to the things we see right in front of us.
Or more simply put, “what’s focal is presumed causal.”2
But this isn’t limited to viewing conversations. It’s seen in multiple studies of video recorded questioning of criminal suspects. The research shows video viewers attribute greater guilt to suspects when a video has the suspect directly facing the cameras.3
Yet, the effect is eliminated when both the suspect and the questioner are shown equally in the camera.
Over and over, the research proves this. And it’s not isolated just to cameras. One study of tae kwon do matches revealed that referees awarded more points to competitors wearing red colored head and body protection than those wearing the less noticeable blue gear.
Over and over, the research proves this. And it’s not isolated just to cameras. One study of tae kwon do matches revealed that referees awarded more points to competitors wearing red colored head and body protection than those wearing the less noticeable blue gear.4
If something draws our attention, we give it more causal weight. Even for people attempting to be unbiased.
When something is focal, we think it’s causal.
- Point of view and perceptions of causality. Taylor, Shelley E.; Fiske, Susan T. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 32(3), Sep 1975, 439-445. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0077095
- Cialdini, Robert (2016-09-06). Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade (Kindle Location 930). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
- Lassiter, G. D. (2010). Psychological science and sound public policy: video recording of custodial interrogations. American Psychologist, 65(8), 768.
- "The competitor wearing red protective gear was awarded an average of 13%...more points than the competitor wearing blue protective gear..." Hagemann, N., Strauss, B., & Leissing, J. (2008). When the referee sees red. Psychological Science, 19(8), 769. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02155.x