We See Things Based On What We Know, Says Study On Arabic Letters

What you know of something affects how you see it, says a new study that dealt with experts and novices of the Arabic language viewing letters of the Arabic alphabet. It was found that one’s knowledge, or lack thereof, of the Arabic letters influenced one’s perception of them. The paper is published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance.

This chart groups letters based on how similar they looked to test participants who didn't know Arabic and to test participants who were experts in the language. Johns Hopkins researchers found the two groups saw the letters quite differently. Credit: Robert W. Wiley/JHU
The above chart illustrates the Arabic letters based on how similar they were according to both experts of the language and novices. Photo credits: Credit: Robert W. Wiley/JHU
Two people might have their eyes directed at the same object, but their level of knowledge concerning that thing will determine how they see it.

A new study explains that experience influences visual processing such that one who has more knowledge of something will see it differently from another who knows less. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University reached these conclusions after they investigated how Arabic letters were perceived by experts of the language, and by novices.

Both groups consisted of 25 individuals. They were shown 2,000 pairs of letters, one pair at a time. They were requested to distinguish between the letters: were they the same or different? The researchers measured their speed and accuracy from their answers.

The results show that while novices were faster to make the distinction between the letters, the experts displayed greater accuracy. On the other hand, the novices were slower with increasing number of features in the letters: the more characteristics a letter had, the slower they got. This was the opposite for the experts: the more features the letters had, the better they were at distinguishing between them.

Furthermore, the two groups were found to have different perspectives of the letters. They had different answers as to which letters looked alike. The pairs of letters confusing the novices in this regard were extremely different from those that confused the experts. The latter were apparently biased by the non-visual aspects they knew of the letters, like their names and sounds.

This stark difference was interpreted as follows:-
The expert’s visual system will not see the same object as a beginner’s. Rather, a pro will find simple what a beginner will deem complex. The researchers conclude that their findings are pertinent to anything we see, and not just to letters.

Lead author Robert W. Wiley says that their results must apply to all objects, from cars to birds to faces. According to him, expertise in an area changes perception. Being an expert implies gaining the knowledge of the aspects that matter, and those that don’t – this would include visual features, such that an expert will know what to look for.

Knowledge, therefore, influences perception.

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