WHEN PERCEPTIONS
DON'T MATCH REALITY

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Jessica Witt

Jessica Witt, assistant professor of psychological sciences

In February 2012, when Indianapolis hosts the Super Bowl, a year's worth of blood, sweat and cheers could come down to the foot of a single man: a kicker. What that kicker sees when he looks up at his target could mean the difference between euphoria and despair.

The goal post could look small and narrow. Or it could look big and wide. In other words, how the target is perceived could be crucial. This kind of perception intrigues Jessica K. Witt, assistant professor of psychological sciences.

 

THE CHALLENGE

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"Most people think of perception as just being about information received by the eye," says Witt, an accomplished athlete herself who studies perception in athletes. "If that were the case, then perceived size should not have changed because the optical information specifying the size of the goal posts is constant. This research shows that perception is more than just the optical system."

 

SIZING IT UP

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GraphWitt has studied golfers, baseball and softball players and tennis players, in addition to kickers, and has found striking similarities to success in each sport.

  • On a good day, the ball coming out of the pitcher's hand might look larger and appear to be moving more slowly than it actually is to a baseball player.
  • Tennis players who "ace" a match are more likely to see the ball as moving slowly and view the net as lower to the ground.
  • Golfers on a hot streak have said that the cup looks larger. Of course, the converse can be true, too — a smaller ball, arriving quicker, or a smaller cup in which to try to fit that eight-foot birdie putt.
 

MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE

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Kicker

Perception relates to specific areas of success and failure, Witt says. In football, study participants who missed because they kicked the ball too wide judged the goal to be narrower. Those who missed because they kicked the ball too short judged the goal post to be taller.

 

THE GOAL

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The goal of Witt’s research is simply to understand perception. "My own experiences are that the mental and physical parts of the game are inherently linked. The way a person sees the world or views things is inherently linked to their bodies. That's not how psychologists normally view perception. The traditional way of thinking is that we see the world as it is and not with our own spin on it. We don't really look at what the body can do."

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WIDE IMPACT

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Perception study isn't confined to sports. Part of studying perceptions is how they influence people's decisions. For instance, obese people and those with chronic pain often see a distance from point A to point B as farther away than another individual might see, and they may choose not to walk it.

Graph"People think that they're making all these bad decisions. They actually may be making good decisions — it's just based on their perceptions," Witt says. "We're looking at ways we can reduce these distortions."

In a small, third-floor laboratory in Purdue's Psychological Sciences Building, mirrors hover over a nondescript table. Experiments project a spider trying to scurry for cover as a participant holds a paddle trying to swipe at the insect. "When we use a big paddle, our participants say the spider seems to be moving slowly," Witt says. "When it's a small paddle, the perception is that the spider is moving so fast."

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PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE

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Jessica WittWitt brings her own experiences as an athlete to her studies. She played soccer and squash in college and was part of the 2005 U.S. Ultimate Frisbee team that won a gold medal in Germany. She travels around once a month during the summer and fall to North Carolina to compete with a team in Raleigh. She's also into biking and rock climbing, having climbed Grand Teton National Park's Baxter's Pinnacle in Wyoming.