Priming and Pareilolia


Read this post first,



Here’s the story…

I caught this tweet this morning:
@BadAstronomer: Beam me up some breakfast. Warp factor three egg omelette.

I will pretty much click on anything that starts with “beam me up”, so I did and, as you know, I saw this:

Well, I really saw this:

I even heard theme music in my head. I imagined “NCC-1701″ written on the hull in salsa. Because the original series is the cornerstone and James T. Kirk is the greatest captain of all time, space, film, and literature.

But… would I have perceived it as such if:

  • the tweet did not include references to Star Trek?
  • the tweet was not from Phil Plait, whom I know to be an avid fellow scifi fanatic?
  • the tweet was not from Phil Plait, whom I know to be at Comic-con right now for several reasons?
  • I was not lamenting not being at Comic-con myself?
  • had not just rearranged a shelf on which our Original Series collection sat, taunting me?

Would Phil Plait had perceived the icon of the god that is Captain James T. Kirk if he were not at Comic-con? If he were not a sci-fi fanatic? You get the picture.

The experience of seeing the DVDs or being at (or thinking about) Comic-con is called a “prime” in the psychological literature, because it activates related information, lowering your perceptual threshold for it. The prime prepares you, in a way, to receive related input.

The tweet itself is a suggestion; it is information about to experience. You then use, in part, top-down processes to interpret the image given that information.

Some good examples of how this works using another sense (hearing) can be found in one of my first blog entries about a very naughty Elmo doll.

Priming effects sometimes confound pareidolia (the tendency to perceive familiar patterns in otherwise meaningless input). However, in laboratory tests, such as that conducted by Vokey & Read and some work a student of mine presented at the Western Psychological Association convention this year, little is perceived from very ambiguous sensory information without priming or suggestion. The “Elmo” post includes several illustrations of this.

So, the question remains: Did we see the Enterprise because it really does look like the Enterprise, or we just amazingly geeky?

Either way, I’m going to add it to my collection. If my readers are even HALF as geeky as me…

Vokey JR, & Read JD (1985). Subliminal messages. Between the devil and the media. The American psychologist, 40 (11), 1231-9 PMID: 4083611

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