Experiment on Interpreting the Ambiguous

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Experiment on Interpreting the Ambiguous

The aim of this investigation was to see if participants who are
primed with set in the form of context; an ambiguous word will
interpret the ambiguous word in terms of what they have been led to
expect it to be.

An opportunity sample of 30 participants was tested using an
independent variable design on 3 conditions of the independent
variable, 15 males and 15 females were used.

The participants were tested individually, 10 participants were read
out all the words in condition A, condition B and Condition C. Answers
and Genders were then noted.

The dependant variable was the number of times the word was
interpreted in terms of fish/weight.

The calculated value of x² = 18.91 exceeds the critical value of 5.991
(p 0.05; df+2; 2 - tailed test) therefore the null hypothesis may be
rejected, and the alternative hypothesis accepted, which states that;

'There will be a difference in the interpretation of an ambiguous
figure in terms of what they have been led to expect it to be.'


Perception is the process by which we analyse and make sense out of
incoming sensory information. Perception can be distinguished from
sensation, which concerns the stimulation of sensory receptors and may
also be restricted to the earlier stages of processing incoming
information. But there is no fully agreed definition

Gregory compiled a theory which was that 'perception is not determined
simply by stimulus patterns; rather it is a dynamic searching for the
best interpretation of the available data… perception involves going
beyond the immediately given evidence of the senses. Gregory believes
that perception is a constructive sequence of events which resembles
the formation and testing of hypotheses. He says that signals are
taken in by different types of receptors and neural inputs, which
interact with the knowledge stored in our memories this produces data
of a physiological nature - making sense of our world and a predict
events in it.

Therefore perception involves searching for the best available

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interpretation of the data which are presented.

Overall Gregory's theory tells us that through perceptual consistency,
perceptual set and stored schema, the experience of new perceptual
stimuli is subjected to hypothesis testing. An indication of
intelligent behaviour is the prediction from hypothesis based on
meagre sensory data. He also agrees that if the brain cannot fill in
gaps that the perceptual world would come to a standstill.

Set is a state of readiness or preparedness to perceive certain kinds
of information rather than other kinds. Perceptual set is a powerful
phenomena can be affected by a range of circumstance, such a prior
experience, emotion, motivation, culture and habit.

There have been many different studies which have been related
directly to the concept of 'set'.

It has been said that there are many influences on set. They are
mainly to do with the perceiver, but also to do with the nature of the
stimulus or the conditions under which it is being perceived. The most
direct influence of a set is of course itself a perceiver variable or

Chapman gave a demonstration to show how instructions can induce set.
The candidates had to look at series of cards on which printed were
different capital letters; they varied according to

*number of letters 4-8

*Identity of the letters

*their spatial arrangement

The candidates were tested tachistoscopically so that the candidates
ability to recognise them would be less than perfect and set was
manipulated by instructing subjects to report on one of the 3
characteristics of a card and compared this with subjects given after
exposures = no influence on set.

Chapman noted that those given instructions before exposure made fewer
errors, on all 3 times. Chapman noted that the way that instructions
create set is essentially through inducing expectations on the
perceivers part.

There have been other examples of selective perception where set is a
key variable - a policeman being trained to notice and remember car
number plates or physical characteristics of law breakers.

Minturn and Bruner found that usually there is an interaction between
context and expectation as below:

E D C 13 A 16 15 14 13 12

The stimulus '13' is the same in both sets but is perceived
differently because of the context in which it appears. The reader
expects it to be the letter 'B' because it is surrounded by letters
and number '13' when surrounded by other numbers.

Bruner and Postman noticed that we may fall to notice printing errors
for the same reason as in the study above.

Example - 'The cat sat on the map and licked it whiskers'


These triangles demonstrate the interaction between expectation and
past experience.




The following study is designed to investigate the influence of
expectations on the interpretation of the ambiguous word 'scale'.

Aim: To see if participants who are primed to see a particular aspect
of an ambiguous word will interpret the ambiguous word in terms of
what they have been led to expect it to be.

Experimental Hypothesis - there will be a difference in the
interpretation of an ambiguous word in terms of whether the
participants have been led to believe it to be related to fish or

Null Hypothesis - There will be no difference between the number of
responses of participants who are primed to see a particular aspect of
an ambiguous word in terms of what they have been led to expect it to

Design: In this experiment the type of design used was that of
independent measures - which is where different participants are used
in each of the different conditions. This measures design was used to
eliminate order effects and because the task used cannot be repeated
because the participants may work out the aim of the experiment and
give the experimenter what they want to hear.

In order to gain a large quantity and variety of results, an
opportunity sample number of 30 participants were used, with equal
split of half males and females to gain a gender balance. In each
group there were 5 males and 5 females for each different condition.
The age range used is 18 - 55. There was two reasons for this; ethical
guidelines don't allow for a breach below the age of 16. Ranging ages
up too 55 gave a better representation of the target population. Not
only did I record gender and age but also the occupations of the
candidates as this gave a better representation of the target
population and generalisation of results. The candidates were chosen
opportunity sample and evenly as possible due to the short period of
testing time available by.

Materials: The three different word lists conditions: A) related to
fish, B) related to weight C) unrelated. (see appendix A) Data
collection chart (see appendix D).

Procedure: The participants were tested individually, 10 participants
were read out all the words in condition A and asked what their
interpretation of the ambiguous word was. The answers were then noted
along with the gender and age of the candidate. This was repeated with
the 10 of candidates for condition B and C.

The dependant variable was the number of times the word was
interpreted in terms of to fish/weight.

(for standardised instructions and debriefing, see appendix B)

Controls: As there could be possible sources of bias or confounding
variables in the investigation, I had to identify them and make sure
they didn't occur. I did this by; Gender bias, where the researcher
may accidentally ask more male than females. I eliminated this by
using equal numbers of males and females. Researcher Bias, where the
researcher may unknowingly influence the participants answers. I
overcame this by using standardised instructions. Demand
Characteristics, where participants might think they know what the
researcher wants to know. I overcame this once again by using
standardised instructions. Limited sample, because of the inadequate
time given to complete the research. I tested a wide range of people
from different occupational backgrounds.

Ethical Considerations: I also had to identify and solve the matter of
ethical issues such as; informed consent, I did this by gaining
permission from all participants (who were over the age of 16). The
task was explained during the debriefing. Distress and Embarrassment,
I made sure I didn't use words that might upset people in the word
lists. I continually reassured people that it did not reflect on their
intelligence. Confidentiality, I did not identify the town or
participants names (simply given numbers; 1-30). Privacy, I tested the
participants in concealed environment.


(for calculations, see Appendix C)

The calculated value of x² = 18.91 exceeds the critical value of 5.991
(p 0.05; df+2; 2 - tailed test) therefore the null hypothesis may be
rejected, and the alternative hypothesis accepted, which states that,

'There will be a difference in the interpretation of an ambiguous word
in terms of whether the participants have been led to believe it.'

Justification for the use of x²

*nominal data

*independent measures

*test of difference

a 5% level of significance was employed because it achieves a balance
between type 1 and type 2 errors.

Table 1: Table of Means:

Condition A

Condition B



Table 2: Table of













The calculated value of x² = 18.91 exceeds the critical value of 5.991
(p 0.05; df+2; 2 - tailed test) therefore the null hypothesis may be
rejected, and the alternative hypothesis accepted, which states that,

'There will be a difference in the interpretation of an ambiguous
figure in terms of what they have been led to expect it to be.'

It can be seen from Table 1 that the mean of condition A=5.67 and the
mean of condition B=5.33. From looking at these it can be seen that
the means are similar so the ambiguity of the word is good and the
proceeding words can be seen to have induces 'set'.

It can be seen clearly from Table 2 that the word is ambiguous; for in
condition A all responses were what was predicted (response A) and the
same with Condition B - all participants responded with B. There was a
clear split in Condition C which shows that the word is clearly

The bar chart reinforces this statement for the bar for condition A is
much the same as the bar for condition B. It shows a big difference
between A/B compared with C which shows that there is an equal
comparison between Bar 1 and 2 and A/B. Series 1 dominating series 2.

The results of this study support Gregory's constructivist theory of
perception which states that perception is a 'top down' process is
dependant upon inferences which are made about the nature of the
stimuli which are then tested by the hypothesis showing that
perception is influence by top down processes. Results from this study
support them of Chapman's study as it shows how instructions can
affect perception. Chapman said 'that instructions create set is
through including expectations on the perceivers' part'. All though
this is clearly related to my experiment it is not in the form of
text, but single lettering. This also supports the work of Mintum and
Bruner, In this experiment letters and numbers where used to create
the set, so all though relative to my experiment, it does not
conclusively support it. But it does shows us that context can effect
interpretation i.e. the way that the letter 'B' was expected because
it was surrounded by other letters. This study accurately supports the
Research by Bruner and Postman as it uses text (as so does mine). It
shows that the reader can be influenced by the interaction between
expectation and past experience, which my study is relevant with.

From completing this study there where lots of weaknesses and
limitations that were noted.

In the sets used, the words where not the same length which meant that
the test could have been seen as biased. This could have effected the
test on perception. To change this all I need to do is make all the
words the same length so the test will be fair.

In the list only used a maximum of 6 words were used. Which when
thinking about it is not enough words to create any
impression/perception effect. If I was too repeat it I would use about
30 words. This would eliminate the above problem.

Participant bias occurred heavily in this experiment due to factors
such as the majority of the participants in my test were from my
college due to the short testing time available, so all the candidates
were of the same age and occupation. Due to the environmental
conditions that occur at college, a lot of the participants either
knew what the experimenter wanted from them or had already completed
the test. Which created experimenter biased - due to the experimenter
knowing the participants they could unknowingly of been prompting for
the correct answer.

Due to the length of time given the use of opportunity sampling was
only suitable because there was not time to find and carry out any
other methods of sampling. So it was biased. In a replication random
sampling would be more appropriate and fairer.

This could be carried out by using a phone book and randomly selecting
participants names. The sample number used was also much too small for
this experimenter, the amount should have exceed 100 to be and
accurate result.

From my experiment it was found that set does affect perception, by
influencing the way that people think and interpret an ambiguous word,
make someone think differently, and possibly misinterpret information.

A different way of investigating the influence of context could be to
use, pictures instead of words, using stereotypical features of people
and ask the participant's questions on what they think the person is
like and how they behave, i.e. a skin head with tattoos, may be
stereotyped as a 'thug'.

Or place your participant outside a public house and arrange for a
person to walk out falling all over the place and see whether the
participant thinks the person is drunk or having a fit, and compare
with a person staggering in a hospital.

Or place your participants in a room and get them to listen to music
which portrays happiness or sadness. Ask your participants their moods
or for them to interpret a picture or text.

Conclusion: This study supports the suggestion that set in the form of
context has an influence on perception.



Gross, R.D. (1992) Psychology - The science of Mind and Behaviour

Hooder and Stoughton

Stratton, P and Haynes, N (1998) - A students Dictionary of Psychology

Edward Arnold

Taylor I, (Ed) (1999) - Active Psychology

Pearson Education


Bruner and Postman from Gross 1992 - pg254

Chapman from Gross 1992 - pg252

Gregory from Taylor 1999 - pg586

Minturn and Bruner from Gross 1992 - pg253


The three different conditions:

A= Cod, Chips, Fin, Water, Gills, Shark, Whale

B=Ton, Kilogram, Heavy, Onze, Light, Pound,

C=Red, Tree, Car, Person, Tin, Tap, Cigarettes

Chi Squared






















0 - Σ

0 - Σ

0 - Σ²
































[IMAGE]df = (number of rows - 1) x (number of columns -1) (2-1) x (3 -
1) = 1 x 2= 2

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