What a 1960 Experiment Reveals About Emotional Decision-Making

Living in a highly individualistic culture, we might be tempted to believe we navigate the world as isolated rational actors guided solely by our own perception of reality. But as quantum physics can tell us, everything is connected to everything else -- and human psychology is no exception. One of the most fascinating studies of how emotional feedback from others shapes our own perception comes from psychologists Eleanor J. Gibson and R.D. Walk, who in 1960 devised a clever experiment dubbed the visual cliff study: The researchers placed 36 babies, one at a time, on a countertop, half solid plastic covered with a checkered cloth and half clear Plexiglas, on the other side of which was the baby's mother. To the baby crawling along the countertop, an abyss gapes open where the Plexiglas begins, signaling danger of falling, yet the solid feel of the surface offers ambiguous input. "Will I fall, or will I reach mom?," the baby ponders.

The researchers found that to make the assessment, the babies relied on the mothers' facial expression -- a reassuring, happy one meant they kept crawling, and an alarmed, angry one made them stop at the edge of the Plexiglas.

When faced with emotional ambiguity, most of us remain babies on Plexiglas -- we search for feedback to resolve uncertainty, and often forget that the Plexiglas is there, unflinching -- a solid, albeit invisible, support. We just have to take the leap... or crawl, as it were.

For more on the fascinating interplay between our cognition and the emotions of others, see the excellent A General Theory of Love, rereading which reminded me of the visual cliff study.

TEMPLATEBrainPickings04.jpg

This post also appears on Brain Pickings, an Atlantic partner site.

Presented by

Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Photos of New York City, in Motion

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book

Video

The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"

Video

This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.

Video

What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in Health

Just In