Chapter 5. Sensing and Perceiving
Misperception by Those Trained to Accurately Perceive a Threat
On September 6, 2007, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders’ summit was being held in downtown Sydney, Australia. World leaders were attending the summit. Many roads in the area were closed for security reasons, and police presence was high.
As a prank, eight members of the Australian television satire The Chaser’s War on Everything assembled a false motorcade made up of two black four-wheel-drive vehicles, a black sedan, two motorcycles, bodyguards, and chauffeurs (see the video below). Group member Chas Licciardello was in one of the cars disguised as Osama bin Laden. The motorcade drove through Sydney’s central business district and entered the security zone of the meeting. The motorcade was waved on by police, through two checkpoints, until the Chaser group decided it had taken the gag far enough and stopped outside the InterContinental Hotel where former U.S. president George W. Bush was staying. Licciardello stepped out onto the street and complained, in character as bin Laden, about not being invited to the APEC Summit. Only at this time did the police belatedly check the identity of the group members, finally arresting them.
Afterward, the group testified that it had made little effort to disguise its attempt as anything more than a prank. The group’s only realistic attempt to fool police was its Canadian-flag-marked vehicles. Other than that, the group used obviously fake credentials, and its security passes were printed with “JOKE,” “Insecurity,” and “It’s pretty obvious this isn’t a real pass,” all clearly visible to any police officer who might have been troubled to look closely as the motorcade passed. The required APEC 2007 official vehicle stickers had the name of the group’s show printed on them, and this text: “This dude likes trees and poetry and certain types of carnivorous plants excite him.” In addition, a few of the “bodyguards” were carrying camcorders, and one of the motorcyclists was dressed in jeans, both details that should have alerted police that something was amiss.
The Chaser pranksters later explained the primary reason for the stunt. They wanted to make a statement about the fact that bin Laden, a world leader, had not been invited to an APEC Summit where issues of terror were being discussed. The secondary motive was to test the event’s security. The show’s lawyers approved the stunt, under the assumption that the motorcade would be stopped at the APEC meeting.
The ability to detect and interpret the events that are occurring around us allows us to respond to these stimuli appropriately (Gibson & Pick, 2000). In most cases the system is successful, but as you can see from the above example, it is not perfect. In this chapter we will discuss the strengths and limitations of these capacities, focusing on both sensation — awareness resulting from the stimulation of a sense organ — and perception — the organization and interpretation of sensations. Sensation and perception work seamlessly together to allow us to experience the world through our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin, but also to combine what we are currently learning from the environment with what we already know about it to make judgments and to choose appropriate behaviours.
The study of sensation and perception is exceedingly important for our everyday lives because the knowledge generated by psychologists is used in so many ways to help so many people. Psychologists work closely with mechanical and electrical engineers, with experts in defence and military contractors, and with clinical, health, and sports psychologists to help them apply this knowledge to their everyday practices. The research is used to help us understand and better prepare people to cope with such diverse events as driving cars, flying planes, creating robots, and managing pain (Fajen & Warren, 2003).
We will begin the chapter with a focus on the six senses of seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, tasting, and monitoring the body’s positions (proprioception). We will see that sensation is sometimes relatively direct, in the sense that the wide variety of stimuli around us inform and guide our behaviours quickly and accurately, but nevertheless is always the result of at least some interpretation. We do not directly experience stimuli, but rather we experience those stimuli as they are created by our senses. Each sense accomplishes the basic process of transduction — the conversion of stimuli detected by receptor cells to electrical impulses that are then transported to the brain — in different, but related, ways.
After we have reviewed the basic processes of sensation, we will turn to the topic of perception, focusing on how the brain’s processing of sensory experience can not only help us make quick and accurate judgments, but also mislead us into making perceptual and judgmental errors, such as those that allowed the Chaser group to breach security at the APEC meeting.
Fajen, B. R., & Warren, W. H. (2003). Behavioral dynamics of steering, obstacle avoidance, and route selection. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 29(2), 343–362.
Gibson, E. J., & Pick, A. D. (2000). An ecological approach to perceptual learning and development. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Figure 5.1: Caroline ouellette by Genevieve2 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Caroline_Ouellette_8_janvier_2011.jpg) used under CC BY SA 3.0 license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en); Arcade by Belinda Hankins Miller (http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Arcade-20071020-a.jpg) used under CC BY 2.0 license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.it); Niagara Bridge, Canada by Tony Hisgett (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Niagara_Bridge,_Canada.jpg) used under CC BY 2.0 license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en).