Can our emotions shape our perceptions?

In the online Buddhism and Modern Psychology course I’m currently enrolled, they mentioned this research paper on how emotions can shape our perceptions:


Alligator or squirrel: musically induced fear reveals threat in ambiguous figures.

Prinz JSeidel A.

Abstract. Extant evidence has shown that fear can influence what we see. Fear can exaggerate threatening visual features or make them more salient. Here we show that fear can alter the meaning of what is seen. Three newly devised ambiguous figures that can be seen as benign or dangerous objects were presented for brief intervals. The majority of participants reported perceiving benign objects in a neutral control condition and in a condition in which happiness was induced; but, when fear was induced, the majority reported seeing dangerous objects. This suggests that fear can alter the meaning attributed to a visually perceived stimulus. In this study happiness and fear were induced using instrumental music, so the findings also suggest that sound can influence vision by influencing emotions.

What do you see in the pictures below?


Do you see a squirrel or an alligator? A rope or a snake? A meat cleaver or a cooking pot? Well, most people make a snap judgement, right? In the research they played no-music, happy music and scary music, and found the following:


As you can see in the graph above when people saw the ambiguous images while hearing fearful music, ~70% of them were more inclined to perceive the images as threatening (e.g., a snake) compared to the ~30% of the people that were hearing no-music. In other words, when hearing scary music people thought they were seeing a snake.

How can our feelings and emotions shape our perceptions in this way? From a natural-selection perspective, the findings of this study make sense. In a context of survival, the fearful state might lead you to react to any stimulus around and therefore trigger your freeze or fight mode to keep your heart beating. Being immersed in that fear is actually helping you to keep you alive!

What are your thoughts on this?

Take home message: Exposure to a frightening stimulus changed visual perceptions, inclining people to read ambiguous patterns as threatening.


Feature image from Pexels – C0 license.

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