by Kenneth Rudich
Let’s explore another side of the impact of noise on perception, one in which it assumes the role of a foil by discouraging the brain’s ability to quickly perform a seemingly simple task.
Here’s the task: Look at the words in the above graphic and name the color of the text for each word as quickly as you can.
If you’re like most people, you likely experienced a delayed reaction time while attempting to perform this task, and you probably were prone to making errors. You might even have felt a slight sense of discomfort or tension to coincide with it.
The Stroop Effect
This kind of noise is called the Stroop Effect, which was named after psychology researcher John Ridley Stroop. Unlike the task in part 1, where the automation of reading – reading the word as whole rather than each letter by itself – helped your brain disregard the potential impact of the noise caused by the spelling errors, this time the automation of reading hampered your effort in light of the task you were asked to perform. The most immediate response that came to mind was prone to getting it inadvertently wrong.
Why was the same automation of reading that helped with perception in part 1 disrupting it in part 2? Because when you read the word of a color, the mind automatically thinks of the semantic meaning of the text rather than the color of the font. The color of the font is not automatized. It requires additional thought beyond the tendencies of your first and most immediate reaction.
The Stroop Effect reveals the role of selective attention. Attention is concentrating on one aspect of an environment while ignoring other things. For instance, you might focus on what one person in a room is saying while ignoring all the other conversations going on around you.
For the above task, it’s best to selectively turn your attention away from what the word is saying and instead focus on the color of the letters. This is the exact opposite of what your brain did in part 1, where it ignored the individual letters and looked at the word as a whole. Here, the better strategy is to concentrate on one individual letter within each word while ignoring the word as a whole.
While this task provides an example of semantic noise, there’s also a form of internal noise as well.
A secondary influence, which introduces further confusion, is a form of internal noise called cognitive dissonance.
The terms cognitive or cognition relate to, or are concerned with, intellectual activity like reasoning, solving problems, making decisions, attention and memory. Dissonance is another word for disagreement or conflict. In this case, the written word for a color is in conflict with the color of the text; and to make matters worse, the color of the text changes from word to word. This constant barrage of incongruity creates cognitive dissonance, where the mind struggles with determining what it should pay attention to for achieving the task. If you felt a bit uncomfortable while performing the task, this would be the reason for it.
Because the mind prefers continuity over conflict (think of how agitated you often get while in moments of conflict), the solution to this problem again rests with selective attention as described earlier. Focusing on one letter within a word rather than the word as a whole reduces the tension or conflict between the two. In this case it makes the task far easier to perform. But just as we cautioned in the last post, this strategy can cut both ways. It depends on the circumstances in which it’s used, and also how it’s used.
In part 3 of this series, we’re going to explore the ramifications of these examples in business and marketing. We’ll specifically look at what can go wrong due to the noise they produce, and what might be done to minimize the potentially damaging effects of this noise. What’s more, we have a recent real world case study to draw on for accomplishing this objective (Hint: Does the name Penn State mean anything to you now?).