It Figures!

Image of ambiguous figure and ground
New research by Rolf Nelson, Professor of Psychology, and Nicholas Hebda ’14 challenged a 1923 finding by a prominent perceptual researcher and a Nobel prize-winning physiologist.  This classic finding held that people perceive a target (a red dot) more readily when it is on the “ground” region rather than on the “figure” region. Think of the coast along the ocean – we tend to focus on the shape of the land (the figure) rather than the water (the ground), although they share the same contour. 

Through the decades, this theory influenced some important psychological theorists, but those principles have been contradicted by more recent research.

Nelson and Hebda replicated the original experiments, modifying how subjects reported their perceptions. Their outcomes contradicted the 1923 conclusions, and suggested an alternative interpretation of the original data.

 

The article will be published in the journal Perception. It is currently available online.