Do Our Emotions Really Affect Our Visual Perception?

We know that the way we feel affects the way we behave, the decisions and choices we make, and the way we communicate; but science has discovered that our emotional state also affects what we actually see.

It affects our visual perception – controlling the activity of the visual cortex. For example: the steepness of a hill; the size of an object; distance; and other visual judgements vary depending on the mood of the observer.

Let’s look at how these discrepancies affect our daily lives, and how we can improve our lives through working with this ability.

Do Our Emotions Really Affect Our Visual Perception

How Steep is the Hill?

When we look at a hill, we naturally assume we are seeing it as it is; however, the truth is that the majority of people perceive a hill to be at least four times as steep as it really is. In addition to this, scientific experiments have shown that a person’s perception of the steepness of a hill varies depending on their mood.

Negative emotions such as sadness, fear and anger will cause the hill to appear steeper, while positive emotions such as joy, excitement and love will cause the hill to appear less steep.

What’s Going on Around You?

Several behavioral studies have shown that emotions also affect peripheral vision. In these experiments, people were shown pictures of faces with different expressions – some were negative, in order to induce negative feelings as a response, some were neutral, and others were positive. After each of these images, the participants were immediately shown an image that had a person’s face in the center, with a selection of other images – of places or houses – positioned around the face.

The participants were asked to notice the emotion of the first image, and then to try to determine the gender of the second face. This was in order to keep their focus on the center of the image rather than on the periphery.

The results of these experiments showed a strong correlation between positive moods and increased peripheral vision. Participants were able to recall more of the peripheral images when the face shown to them just before the composite image had a positive expression on it, inducing a positive response from the participant.

When the composite image was shown immediately after a face with a negative expression, inducing a negative response from the participant, the participant was not able to recall as much detail from the peripheral images.

Interestingly, the increase in peripheral vision that occurred following the positive images was not achieved at the expense of the central point of focus. Participants were able to recall equal levels of detail regarding the central image – it was only the peripheral vision that was affected.

Weapons vs Faces

The effect of emotions on perception is also evident in “the weapon effect” – when a witness to a crime is able to recall details of the weapon used, but not of the assailant’s appearance. In the state of fight-freeze-or-flight, the majority of people will hone in on the dangerous object – the gun, knife, or other weapon – and will have a reduced awareness of anything else going on around them. They will be able to report on the details of the weapon, but very little on the appearance of the attacker.

What’s Happening Behind the Scenes?

It is proposed that the reason for the adjustments in spatial awareness caused by different emotions is down to the fact that we are designed for automated survival.

When the body is in a stress state, indicating danger, the brain automatically prepares the visual system to detect certain aspects of the environment that are relevant, to make them easier to see. This increases the body’s chances of survival.

So, What’s the Problem?

This is an excellent mechanism when you are in immediate physical danger (which is what seems to be the purpose). However, it can be completely counter-productive when you are attempting to achieve something that poses no real physical threat. For example, when you are about to approach someone you’re attracted to, with the intention of striking up a conversation, the misrepresentation of your environment can cause a lot more stress than you need to experience.

In fact, it can put you off approaching the person all together. Feeling fear can make the person appear to be less approachable, and can cause you to focus on the obstacles instead of the positive aspects. Since your life is unlikely to be in danger (unless you’re approaching a very different kind of person!) not only is there no need for the fight-freeze-or-flight response in this case, but it can significantly impair your ability to achieve your goal.

In a situation where you are about to be hit by a vehicle, the misrepresentation of the size of the vehicle and its distance from you would be useful (seeing the car as larger and closer to you than it really is will prompt a faster and stronger reaction to get out of the way). However, the same misrepresentation when you are about to give a speech or presentation to a group of people is counter-productive.

Seeing the stage as bigger, and the walk to it as longer; seeing the group as larger and more intimidating than they are will only increase the levels of stress. And since you are not in physical danger, this stress state is unnecessary and detrimental.

In addition to this, the reduction in peripheral vision caused by the negative emotion reduces your ability to benefit from what’s going on around you that may be beneficial. Another example of the effects emotions have on visual perception is going into a job interview, feeling anxious or sad.

When in a calm and happy state, not only will your body language, micro-expressions and tone of voice be different, but you will also notice things you wouldn’t notice in a negative emotional state. Since your peripheral vision and spatial awareness are affected, when you are in a negative state, your focus is honed in on whatever is “dangerous” at the time.

The environment will appear different, and you will not notice certain “extras” that could help you to achieve your goal. For example, in a calm and happy state, since your perception has a broader scope, you may notice the photo on the wall that shows the person interviewing you with someone you admire. Commenting on this, or asking questions about the event could help to develop a rapport. You may notice that the employees you passed on the way in seem happy and relaxed – which would automatically help you to relax.

For the majority of us, most of our time is spent out of immediate physical danger; and this means that we should hardly ever be going into a state of fight-or-flight. Considering it affects not only our behavior, but our visual perception – and our visual perception affects our choices and decisions – it is worth reducing these effects so that we are able to make the most of the experiences in our everyday lives.

Reducing the Effects of Emotion on Visual Perception

Using FasterEFT, you can change your emotional reactions to triggers that are not physically dangerous. For example, before approaching that person you’re attracted to, tap out the feelings of apprehension, fear, unworthiness – or whatever other negative state is taking over at the time.

You can use mental tapping in the moment if necessary. By doing this, you will not only feel calmer, more confident and in control; you will also increase your awareness of what’s going on around you – helping you to avoid embarrassing incidents, and possibly take opportunities to make use of your environment in an engaging way.

When you are about to give a presentation, you can use FasterEFT to change the feelings of anxiety, fear and nervousness to feelings of calm and positive excitement – which will put the environment (and your audience) into a more positive perspective, helping you to feel even more calm, and therefore perform more effectively.

To find out more about FasterEFT and how it works, visit: The FasterEFT System.

For guidance in using the technique, read: The FasterEFT Technique – Step-by-Step.

To watch Robert G. Smith (founder of FasterEFT) explain how the mind works, and see real-life transformations in others, visit the FasterEFT YouTube Channel.


How We Feel Affects What We See


Emotion and Perception: The Role of Affective Information


The Effects of Emotions on the Steepness of Hills:

Proffitt DR, Bhalla M, Gossweiler R, Midgett J. Perceiving geographical slant. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. 1995;2(4):409–428. [PubMed]

Bhalla M, Proffitt DR. Visual-motor recalibration in geographical slant perception. J Exp Psychol Hum Percept Perform. 1999;25(4):1076–1096. [PubMed]

Riener CR, Stefanucci JK, Proffitt DR, Clore GL. An effect of mood on the perception of geographical slant. Cognition and Emotion. in press. [PMC free article] [PubMed]

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